Moroccans go reluctantly to the polls: Hassan hopes 'honest and open' election will ease external and internal pressures

YESTERDAY was a feast day in Morocco. King Hassan II, Commander of the Faithful, descendant of the Prophet Mohamed, decreed it. As he decreed that the elections for a new parliament should take place, under laws drawn up with his guidance. And as he decreed that there should be no dereliction of the popular duty to vote. And that the elections would be characterised by 'honesty and openness'.

For although Morocco is a constitutional monarchy, which requires elections to be held every six years, the King is absolute ruler. So he was able to decree the extension of the parliamentary term by three years. The first new representatives of the people for nine years will be chosen, but power will remain in the palace. The governments are chosen by him, and presided over by him. They are not even accountable to parliament. All parliament does is rubber-stamp the annual budget. So what then was the point of elections for such a sham body?

The King had both internal and external reasons for holding the elections. There are the constitutional requirements. And parliament, however stuffed it is with establishment figures of the main centrist parties, acts as a safety valve. It provides a talking shop, a place to let off steam.

Externally, pressures have mounted on the country to improve its human rights record. Morocco has over the years earned the opprobrium of Amnesty International and the international community for human rights abuses. In the past couple of years, the King has taken a few small steps towards improving the record. Dissent is still suppressed, but less brutally than before.

Morocco needed to be seen to be permitting elections because of the international climate. All the big aid donors and trade partners - the EC, the US, Canada and Japan - are increasingly tying the provision of aid and concessionary finance to the recipients' records on human rights and democracy.

Yet Morocco can only benefit from regional developments. As it has slowly improved its position, its fellow Maghreb states have nose-dived. The current rulers in Tunis have in their paranoia introduced massive repression against the Islamic threat. And Algeria stifled the return to democracy by overturning elections to stop the Islamic Salvation Front winning.

The Moroccans were intent yesterday that there should be minimal fraud, which has blighted past polls, including the recent referendum. They invited foreign observers and the press to bear witness that the elections were not rigged. Few however expect many candidates other than those loyal to the King to succeed.

The big obstacle to successful elections is not fraud but the lack of enthusiasm of so many voters. Some 11.5 million Moroccans were eligible to vote. There were 2,042 candidates standing for 222 seats, two-thirds of the total. The remaining 111 will be elected by representatives of the trade union movement, professional bodies and local councils. There were only 33 female candidates and four Jewish.

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