Justice and Development Party General Secretary Abdelilah Benkirane soon after victory in Rabat (Morocco)
New Delhi, November 27 After Tunisia, Morocco is the second country wherein a party with religious background has emerged as the biggest group in the first parliamentary elections since constitutional reforms this summer held on November 25, 2011 in the post-Arab Spring era. Justice and Development Part (PJD), a political party with Islamic leaning, won 107 out of 395 seats, followed by Istiqlal Party capturing 60 seats. The PJD is expected to form a coalition government with Istiqlal Party, Democratic Block and other liberal parties.
The total turnout in the polling in the North African country was 45%. It is to point out that 90 out of 395 seats were reserved for women and children in Morocco.
According to the Washington-based think tank National Democratic Institute (NDI), which had 41 accredited observers from 21 countries that went to over 200 polling stations on November 25, the elections "were conducted transparently." The voting process was described as "technically sound" and "without fear of tampering or procedural violations." However, an institute member, Canadian Liberal Party leader Bob Rae, also pointed to the turnout and a number of invalid and spoiled ballots as negative. "Seeing the number of people who actively spoiled their ballots as well as those who did not participate, it is clear that the path to real change will take more effort and time," Rae said.
Lise Storm, a senior lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter in England, said the outcome might signal whether the population was happy with the monarchy or not.
The more votes for the PJD seemed to indicate a desire for greater change, she said, as opposed to votes for the bloc of traditional loyalist parties, which would suggest voters favoured the status quo. Under the new Constitution, approved by referendum in July, both Parliament and the Prime Minister had greater powers while the monarch's sway had been slightly lessened.
The changes meant the Prime Minister must now be chosen from the party winning the greatest number of votes which based on the preliminary results would be the Justice and Development Party rather than King Mohammed VI selecting his own nominee for the job.
The reforms came after thousands of Moroccans took to the streets to demonstrate earlier this year, inspired by what came to be known as the Arab Spring. The youth-based February 20 Movement called for jobs and an end to corruption. (With inputs from CNN Wire staff Aida Alami)
The victory of an Islamist Party in Morocco's parliamentary elections appears to be one more sign that religion-based parties were benefiting the most from the new freedom brought by the Arab Spring. Across the Middle East, parties referencing Islam were making great strides, offering an alternative to corrupt, long serving dictators, who had often ruled with close Western support.
The PJD dominated Morocco's elections through a combination of good organization, an outsider status and not being too much of a threat to Morocco's all-powerful king. By taking 107 seats out of the 395 seats, almost twice as many as the second place finisher, the party ensured that King Mohammed VI must pick the next Prime Minister from its ranks and to form the next government out of the dozen parties in Morocco's Parliament.
It was the first time the PJD, known by its French initials, would head the government and its outsider status could be just what Morocco, wracked by pro-democracy protests, needed. Although it didn't bring down the government, the North African kingdom of 32 million, just across the water from Spain, was still touched by the waves of unrest that swept the Arab world following the revolution in Tunisia, with tens of thousands marching in the streets calling for greater freedoms and less corruption. The king responded by modifying the Constitution to give the next Parliament and Prime Minister more powers, and held early elections.
But there was still a vigorous movement to boycott the elections. There was only a 45 percent turnout in November 25's polls, and many of those who went to vote turned in blank ballots or crossed out every party listed to show their dissatisfaction with the system. Election observers from the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute estimated that up to a fifth of the ballots they saw counted had been defaced in such a way.
In the face of such widespread distrust of politics, historian and political analyst Maati Monjib said a government led by a new political force could be the answer. "If the PJD forms a coalition in a free and independent way and not with a party of the Makhzen," he said referring to the catch-all phrase for the entrenched establishment around the king, "this will be a big step forward for Morocco."
In Tunisia, Morocco, and on November 28, 2011 most likely also Egypt, newly enfranchised populations were choosing religious parties as a rebuke to the old systems, which often espoused liberal or left-wing ideologies.
"The people link Islam and political dignity," said Monjib, who described himself as coming from the left end of the political spectrum. "There is a big problem of dignity in the Arab world and the people see the Islamists as a way of getting out of the sense of subjugation and inferiority towards the West."
Like the Ennahda Party in Tunisia, the PJD was also from the more moderate end of the Islamist spectrum. The party's leader, Abdelilah Benkirane, supported a strong role for the monarchy and the movement had always been cautious to play the political game. The party didn't describe itself as "Islamist" but rather as having an Islamic "reference," meaning that its policies followed the moral dictates of the religion.
The PJD has also avoided focusing on issues like the sale of alcohol or women's head-scarves that have obsessed Islamist parties elsewhere in the region, and instead has talked about the need to revamp Morocco's abysmal education system, root out rampant corruption and find jobs for the millions of unemployed.
Mohammed Tozy, a professor of politics and prominent expert on Islamic movements, said the party had always support in society, but in this election it managed to broaden its appeal. "What they lacked before was the confidence of the public and now they have been able to go beyond their traditional constituency and give assurances to the business and middle class that they weren't totally Islamist," he said.
In Morocco, the PJD was widely acknowledged as being the best organized in the country, relying on grass roots networks to promote candidates rather than just enlisting prominent local figures to attract votes. It also benefited from the push for change in the country and the discrediting of the parties closely associated with the status quo. In particular, the Party of Authenticity and Modernity formed by a friend of the king which was the largest in the outgoing parliament, lost seats in the new elections.
The PJD had an ambivalent relationship with the activists of the pro-democracy movement. Several high-ranking party officials joined the street demonstrations and expressed their solidarity while Benkirane himself warned against the protests, possibly to stay in the palace's good graces.
It would not be the first time that Morocco's kings had looked to the Opposition for help. In the final years of his reign, the current king's father, Hassan II, brought the leftist Union of Progressive Socialist Forces into the government for the first time, even letting its leader serve as Prime Minister. Little changed and the party lost much of its cachet in society and had since plummeted in the polls. Monjib said, however, that if Morocco was going to make it out of its current political crisis, this kind of manipulation must end.
"The palace can't keep playing the game of emptying the parties of their substance, marginalizing them with the citizens, giving them the semblance of power, but not real power so they lose credibility," he said. (with inputs from CNN, USA Today and agencies)