Morocco vote: A showdown between Islamists and liberals

#InsideMorocco

Morocco's King Mohammed VI King remains decision-maker on strategic issues including foreign policy, major infrastructure projects

Moroccan PM Abdelilah Benkirane speaks at PJD meeting in Sale on 6 October (AFP)
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Friday 7 October 2016 2:49 UTC
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Moroccans vote in parliamentary polls on Friday, five years after an Islamist-led government took office following Arab Spring-inspired protests that toppled governments across the region.

The Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) aims to fight off a liberal opposition, which says it wants to roll back the "Islamisation" of Moroccan society.

But the real power will remain in the hands of King Mohammed VI, scion of a monarchy that has ruled the North African country for 350 years. The PJD came to power in 2011, months after massive street protests prompted concessions from the kingdom.

A new constitution transferred some of the king's powers to parliament, at a time when autocratic regimes were falling in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane's PJD heads a coalition including communists, liberals and conservatives.

The PJD says a second term would allow it to press ahead with its economic and social reforms.

While in government, the PJD passed a controversial reform of the retirement system by increasing taxes for its social security programme as well as raising the age of retirement to 63 from 60 by 2020. It also instituted a relatively liberal economic policy.

Their task has been complicated by the unstable world economy and a drought this year that has hit Morocco's vital agricultural sector and sent growth plummeting.

It has also been weakened by rising unemployment and what critics say is a failure to make good on promises made in 2011 to tackle corruption.

The party has also faced a string of scandals within its ranks, including a drugs bust, a land-grab deal and the suspension of two vice presidents found in a "sexual position" on a beach.

The PJD is, however, credited with lowering the budget deficit and is popular among the urban middle classes that have largely abandoned the secular left.

It is weaker in rural areas, where a drought has ravaged the country's all-important agriculture sector and hurt farmers' incomes.

The liberal opposition Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM), formed in 2008 by a close adviser to the king, hopes to take advantage.

Headed by Ilyas El Omari, it has poured enormous resources into a campaign criticising the government's economic record as "catastrophic" and pledging to roll back the "Islamisation" of society.

The PAM, which wants to legalise cannabis, also aims to bring more women into parliament, where they hold just 67 out of 395 seats.

Several parties have fielded ultra-conservative Salafists, in a sign that religious-minded voters are becoming a feature of Moroccan politics.

Some 16 million Moroccans are eligible to vote, with 30 parties competing for seats. Turnout will be a key factor, after it reached only 45 percent in the November 2011 polls.

A list system and an electoral threshold that has been halved to three percent fom six percent could hand small parties a key role in forming the next government.

The PJD and the PAM have ruled out joining forces in a coalition.

Under the 2011 constitution, the king appoints a prime minister from the biggest party in parliament after election results are announced.

He remains the decision-maker on long-term and strategic issues, including foreign policy and major infrastructure projects, said Riccardo Fabiani, a North Africa analyst.

"Parliament and government are free to choose the policies as long as they are compatible with the monarchy’s preferred approach," he wrote in an article for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.