- Associated Press - Thursday, November 24, 2011

RABAT, MOROCCO | Once seen as a threat to this North African kingdom, Morocco’s Islamist party may now be key to the government’s credibility.

The opposition Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) is poised for a strong showing in Friday’s legislative elections - the second elections prompted by Arab world uprisings this year.

Facing a protest movement calling for a boycott of the vote, Morocco’s rulers are ready to embrace the once-feared PJD to restore confidence in the system.

While Morocco’s own Arab Spring 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 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.

Pro-democracy demonstrations across North Africa and the Middle East have shaken up Morocco’s politics, casting doubt on a decades-old system in which multiparty elections were held but left all power in the hands of the king and his allies.

“In 2002, we were in third place, in 2007 we were in second place, so if today we aspire to first place, it is only natural,” Abdelilah Benkirane, the secretary-general of Morocco’s PJD, told the Associated Press.

Landing between 20 percent and 30 percent of the vote “is reasonable,” Mr. Benkirane said. That would translate into more than 100 of Parliament’s 395 seats, a huge jump from its current 47.

The likelihood of such an outcome is hard to gauge because polls are not allowed.

Morocco’s complex proportional representational system lends itself to fractured parliaments with many parties that are then assembled into governing coalitions by the king’s advisers.

In Parliament, the PJD initially focused its efforts on social and religious issues like the Islamic head scarf for women and the sale of alcohol, but has since adjusted its message to focus on issues with wider resonance, like fighting corruption, reforming education and combating rampant unemployment.

Mohammed VI has held onto power while leaders in nearby nations have lost it in bloody uprisings this year.

But under pressure from demonstrators, he first modified the constitution to give some of his powers to the Parliament, and then brought forward legislative elections by almost a year.

The last parliamentary elections, in 2007, were marred by a low turnout rate of just 37 percent.

This year, several political parties as well as the youth-driven pro-democracy February 20 movement are calling for a boycott, claiming the system is rigged.

Morocco’s leaders “want the PJD to do well because it will give credibility to the elections, particularly because it is one of the only credible parties still participating,” said political analyst Maati Monjib.

Unlike in 2007, there is no campaign against the Islamists in the state-dominated press and instead there are just calls for everyone to vote.



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