Moroccans cast votes after protests

 

Moroccans are choosing a new parliament today in Arab Spring-inspired elections that are facing a boycott by democracy campaigners who say the ruling monarchy is not committed to real change.

A moderate Islamist party and a pro-palace coalition are expected to do well in the voting, but a key test for the authorities' legitimacy will be how many voters cast ballots.

The result will be watched by Morocco's US and other western allies, as well as European tourists who cherish its beaches and resorts.

Morocco's reputation as a stable democracy in North Africa has taken a hit with this year's protests. And its once-steady economy is creaking from the amount of money the government has pumped into raising salaries and subsidies to keep people calm amid the Arab world turmoil.

The election campaign has been strangely subdued, unlike the lively politicking in nearby Tunisia when it held the first elections prompted by the Arab uprisings last month.

In Morocco, posters and raucous rallies for candidates are absent in the cities and instead there are just stark official banners urging citizens to "do their national duty" and "participate in the change the country is undergoing".

"The parties have presented the same people for the past 30 years, the least they could do is change their candidates," said Hassan Rafiq, a vegetable seller in the capital Rabat, who said he did not plan to vote.

Like elsewhere in the Arab world, Moroccans hit the streets in the first half of 2011 calling for more democracy, and King Mohammed VI responded by amending the constitution and bringing forward elections. But since then the sense of change has dissipated.

US-based Human Rights Watch said that since October 20 the government had taken more than 100 activists in for questioning for advocating a boycott.

"Moroccans feel that aside from the constitutional reform, nothing has really changed, meaning that the elections of 2011 will be a copy of the elections 2007 and that is what will probably keep the participation low," said Abdellah Baha, deputy secretary general of the Islamist Justice and Development Party.

The 2007 elections, the first with widespread international observation, had just 37% turnout, and some fear it could be even lower this time around.

The constitutional referendum passed with more than 98% voting in favour and a staggering 72% turnout, which most observers found hardly credible.

Morocco with its many political parties and regular elections was once the bright star in a region of dictatorships.

But all that has changed with the Arab uprisings that toppled dictators in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Now a political system that holds elections but leaves all powers in the hands of a hereditary king does not look so liberal.

Under the new constitution, the largest party must form the government, which could well be the Islamist party, known by its French initials PJD. But there is uncertainty over whether it can truly change anything.

The Islamists' biggest rival for the top spot is finance minister Salaheddine Mezouar's Rally of Independents, which leads an alliance of seven other pro-palace parties.

Mr Mezouar said he expected his coalition to take a majority of the parliament and ruled out any kind of alliance with the Islamists. He said he expected a high turnout.

"I am confident about the level of participation, because during this campaign we've seen how interested the citizens are in this election, enormously more than in 2007," he said.

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