- Associated Press - Sunday, November 27, 2011

RABAT, Morocco (AP) — The victory of an Islamist Party in Morocco‘s parliamentary elections on Friday appears to be one more sign that religious-based parties are benefiting the most from the new freedoms brought by the Arab Spring.

Across the Middle East, parties referencing Islam have made great strides, offering an alternative to corrupt, long serving dictators who often have ruled with close Western support.

The Justice and Development Party dominated Morocco‘s elections through a combination of good organization, an outsider status and not being too much of a threat to Morocco‘s all-powerful king.

By taking 107 seats out of the 395 seats, almost twice as many as the second-place finisher, the party ensured that King Mohammed VI must pick the next prime minister from its ranks in forming the next government out of the dozen parties in Morocco‘s parliament.

It is the first time the PJD — as it is known by its French initials — will be part of the government, and its outsider status could be just what Morocco, wracked by pro-democracy protests, needs.

Although it didn’t bring down the government, the North African kingdom of 32 million, just across the water from Spain, was still touched by the waves of unrest that swept the Arab world following the revolution in Tunisia, with tens of thousands marching in the streets calling for greater freedoms and less corruption.

The king responded by modifying the constitution to give the next parliament and prime minister more powers, and held early elections.

But there was still a vigorous movement to boycott the elections. There was only a 45 percent turnout in Friday’s polls, and many of those who went to vote turned in blank ballots or crossed out every party listed to show their dissatisfaction with the system.

Election observers from the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute estimated that up to a fifth of the ballots they saw counted had been defaced in such a way.

In the face of such widespread distrust of politics, historian and political analyst Maati Monjib said a government led by a new political force could be the answer.

“If the PJD forms a coalition in a free and independent way and not with a party of the Makhzen,” he said referring to the catch-all phrase for the entrenched establishment around the king, “this will be a big step forward for Morocco.”

In Tunisia, Morocco and, on Monday, most likely also Egypt, newly enfranchised populations are choosing religious parties as a rebuke to the old systems, which often espoused liberal or left-wing ideologies.

“The people link Islam and political dignity,” said Mr. Monjib, who describes himself as coming from the left end of the political spectrum. “There is a big problem of dignity in the Arab world, and the people see the Islamists as a way of getting out of the sense of subjugation and inferiority towards the West.”

Like the Ennahda Party in Tunisia, the PJD is also from the more moderate end of the Islamist spectrum. The party’s leader, Abdelilah Benkirane, supports a strong role for the monarchy, and the movement always has been careful to play the political game.

The party doesn’t describe itself as Islamist but rather as having an Islamic “reference,” meaning that its policies follow the moral dictates of the religion.

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