Morocco votes in first election since protests; Islamist party eyes victory

Morocco Elections

A man stands next to a publicity panel that reads "We can make a choice" in Casablanca, Morocco, Thursday, Nov. 24, 2011. Moroccans head to polls to

Moroccans voted Friday in Morocco’s first legislative election since the constitution was reformed to give parliament more power, with an Islamist party expected to post strong gains.

The opposition Islamist Justice and Development Party is poised for a strong showing in the elections — the second elections in North Africa since the Arab Spring uprisings began.

While Morocco’s protests never seemed to truly threaten the ruling system, they still prompted King Mohammed VI to introduce constitutional reforms and hold early elections.

With the victory of an Islamist party in Tunisia’s elections last month, and religious movements in Egypt and Libya set to compete in contests there, eyes are now on how Morocco’s PJD it will do on Friday.

Victory would solidify the sense that the choice of the newly empowered masses of the Arab world is an Islamist one.

Though once described by Morocco’s secular elite as a threat to the country’s way of life, the PJD has cast itself as a moderate, anti-corruption crusading party ready to work within the system and, most importantly, fully supporting the monarchy.

Its main rival is the Coalition for Democracy, an eight-party pro-monarchy bloc that includes two of the current five governing parties ― the Popular Movement and the National Rally of Independents.

In all, 31 parties are vying for the 395 seats in the lower house of parliament.

The election comes less than five months after a July referendum overwhelmingly approved a new constitution proposed by the 47-year-old king as neighboring autocratic regimes toppled.

The amended constitution gives parliament a greater role in the legislative process and strengthens the role of the Prime Minister, who now must be appointed by the king from the party which wins the most seats in the assembly.

The election risks being marred by low turnout, however, as well as a boycott call by the pro-reform “February 20 movement”.

The February 20 movement argues the reforms do not go far enough and that the election will only give credibility to an undemocratic regime.

During the last legislative elections in 2007, only 37 percent of voters took part, and of those 19 percent deposited blank ballots.

Voting stations opened at 8 am (0800 GMT) and will close at 7 pm with the first provisional official results expected several hours later. Final results will be announced Saturday.