Islamists slip in Moroccan elections

A Friday vote was seen as a regional test for political Islam in the Arab world.

The Islamists had expected to make unprecedented gains in Morocco's parliamentary vote Friday.

Even though political parties based on religion are illegal, the officially nonreligious but Islamic-inspired Justice and Development Party (PJD) was predicted to become the largest bloc in the 325-member chamber, as it had gained support by campaigning to tackle corruption in the north African country's government.

Instead, the PJD garnered only about five seats, for a total of 47, and came in second, behind the right-leaning and secular Istiqlal (Independence) party, which won 52 seats in the lower house of parliament, according to preliminary results released Saturday.

The surprisingly low showing for the PJD was a blow to the party's long-held strategy of taking a carefully measured path to power in a region with a history of harsh crackdowns on Islamist political groups on the verge of electoral success.

"Islamist parties and governments are watching very closely the Moroccan elections. Moderate Islamist parties in Algeria, Egypt, Syria, and some Gulf countries will have to be part of any reformist agenda in the region," wrote Abdeslam Maghraoui, visiting associate professor in political science at Duke University in Durham, N.C., in an e-mailed response to questions.

The PJD has gained support in recent years by tapping disillusionment with a government seen as removed from voters' needs, focusing on the poor and jobless youths. Nearly 5 million of Morocco's 33 million people live on less than $2 a day, according to the World Bank.

Across the Arab world, Islamist groups of various stripes have become the most potent opposition forces to the authoritarian governments of the region.

"The appeal of Islamists is [that] they are a fresh voice. We say we want someone from 'outside the Beltway' – the Moroccans are the same way," says Donna Lee Bowen, a professor of political science and Middle Eastern studies at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

Some parties have chosen to work from within their systems and others from without, either by choice or by law. Allowing political space for moderate Islamist groups is seen by many as essential to staving off support for violent groups such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (the Arabic term for the area that generally includes Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia).

A brutal civil war was sparked in Algeria in 1992 when the government abruptly canceled elections that an Islamist party was poised to win.

Some of those former rebels recently renamed themselves Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and launched a series of attacks this year.

The latest was a car bomb targeting Algerian coast guard officers on Saturday that killed at least 30 in the town of Dellys, 30 miles from Algiers. On Thursday, a bomb detonated in a crowd waiting to see Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in a town east of the capital, Algiers, killing some 22 people.

The PJD's showing might be a sign the party is struggling to maintain its tightrope walk between participating in the political system while not being contaminated by the system's image for corruption and inability to bring about changes Moroccans want.

Morocco has been held up as one of the most reform-minded nations in the Arab world. It has a diversity of civil-society groups, has passed a code of women's rights, and, accord-ing to observers, held relatively fair elections in 2002.

But in Morocco's political system, King Mohamed VI appoints the prime minister, who in turn chooses government ministers. The parliament acts as a rubber stamp for the king's initiatives and as a discussion forum, but criticism of the monarchy or its policies is strictly off limits. Complex electoral rules mean that government-approved political parties vie for scraps of power, keeping any one party from controlling a majority of the body.

Moroccans have shown little enthusiasm for participating in such a system, as was seen in the low turnout at Friday's polls. Early results for the Chamber of Representatives in Morocco's bicameral parliament put voter turnout at a meager 37 percent.

"We think first, the population in Morocco weren't really interested in the election," says Amara Abdelkader, a member of the general secretariat of the PJD. The PJD also says vote-buying by rival parties might have skewed the numbers.

Morocco's Interior Minister, however, said the election overall was "transparent," according to Reuters.

"Unless a degree of confidence in the institutions and the rules that underpin that system [can] be enhanced, it is not realistic to expect a greater opening of the political system," wrote Guilain Denoeux, a professor of government at Colby College in Maine, in e-mailed comments.

The PJD is seen as the alternative to the illegal but widely supported Justice and Charity Organization. Banned by the government, the Islamist group has taken the opposite tack to bringing change in Morocco as the PJD. Justice and Charity has garnered significant support among average Moroccans by providing social services and maintaining an image of being untainted by a government seen as broadly corrupt by rejecting political participation.

"If [the PJD] doesn't do as well as expected, there will be recriminations of the whole path the party has taken over the last five or six years," said Mr. Denoeux in an earlier interview, noting that there has been debate within the PJD's diverse factions about what is the most effective strategy.

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