In Morocco, a Hush at the Polls
The Washington Post
By Ellen Knickmeyer 

RABAT, Morocco, Sept. 11 — In a political system geared to block the rise of Muslim extremism, the most worrying voice in Morocco’s parliamentary elections was the silent one, politicians and analysts said.

The 37 percent turnout of registered voters on Friday, which the government said was the lowest ever in this North African nation, signals a growing sense of public disenfranchisement from a system that reserves power almost exclusively for the king, Mohammed VI.

The fear is that the discontented may turn again to violence to make themselves heard. Bombings by Islamic radicals in Morocco killed more than 40 people in 2003 and this year.

“The danger of all this is we have a silent majority now,” said Ali Amar, editor of Le Journal Hebdomadaire in Casablanca, one of the country’s most influential newsweeklies. “And the silent people are more and more the radicals.”

In neighboring Algeria, where elections for the national assembly drew only 35 percent of registered voters in May, bombings Thursday and Saturday killed more than 50 people.

Friday’s parliamentary elections in Morocco were only the second under Mohammed. His father, King Hassan II, ensured artificially high turnouts in internationally criticized elections by busing voters to the polls. The first national elections under Mohammed, in 2002, recorded a 52 percent turnout.

Mohammed began his reign in 1999 with promises to strengthen democracy, but since the 2003 bombings, his government has concentrated on combating violence by religious extremists.

Parliament has few real powers, and the constitution makes it all but impossible for any party to gain a majority in the legislature. Critics say a government redrawing of election districts after the 2002 elections was meant to dilute the strength of conservative Islamic voters.

The country’s most popular Islamic political group, the fundamentalist Justice and Charity bloc, is outlawed but also boycotts elections.

A moderate Islamic bloc, the Justice and Development Party, did unexpectedly well in the 2002 vote. That showing, and a 2006 survey by the U.S.-based International Republican Institute indicating that nearly 47 percent of Moroccans supported the party, led its leaders and political analysts here to predict that it would come in first in Friday’s elections.

Instead, the bloc won only four more seats than the 42 it had won in 2002, the government announced over the weekend, making it the second-largest party in Parliament instead of the third.

The government warned then that the plunge in turnout was troubling.

“The challenge today is to think of the best way of mobilizing the electorate in support of political action. That is everybody’s responsibility: officials, political parties and civil society,” Interior Minister Chakib Benmoussa said.
Among top winners in Friday’s voting were nationalist and Socialist parties, both far more experienced in elections than the moderate Islamic bloc. They were expected to join in a governing coalition, shutting out the Islamic party.

Regardless of which parties win, Morocco’s law allows the king to pick the prime minister and cabinet ministers.

Justice and Development Party officials blamed alleged vote-buying and other election fraud for their showing Friday. But international monitors said the vote itself appeared free and fair. The European Union and the United States congratulated Morocco on the elections. The United States, eager to cite models of moderate Islamic government for the rest of the Muslim world, had announced $680 million in development aid for Morocco a week before the vote.

The structure of Morocco’s election system in itself was enough to have kept the moderate Islamic party from doing much better than it had in 2002, said Mohamed Tozy, an expert in political Islam at the Moroccan Center for Sociological Studies in Casablanca.

But the Justice and Development Party also lost votes by neglecting the country’s conservative Islamic voters, Tozy said.

Party leaders played down Islam and played up political and economic reform in campaigning, hoping to emulate the success of Turkey’s mildly Islamic governing party, also called Justice and Development.

The difference is that Turkey has a substantial, moderately religious middle class, and Morocco doesn’t, Tozy said. About 40 percent of Moroccans live in poverty.

“They exaggerated the normalization” of their Islamic party, Tozy said. “They have forgotten their heart” and natural constituency.

In the end, the moderate pitch from the only significant Islamic party contesting the elections disappointed those who would like to see a more assertive brand of Islamic politics, and it failed to overcome the suspicions of those who fear just that, said Amar, the editor.

Casablanca, where the bombings in 2003 and this year evidenced the most anger among Muslim radicals, had the lowest turnout in the country Friday, 27 percent.

On election day, many voters said they didn’t know the candidates or parties they were supporting — only stamping on ballots the symbols that local “big men” had told them to stamp.

“I voted for the horse,” said Khadija Bordo, a round, small, 54-year-old woman in the hooded robe worn by many Moroccans. A few minutes later, she confessed that she had been told to mark one party’s symbol of a horse but in the privacy of the voting booth had slashed her mark across the entire ballot, rendering it void.

“I voted for no one! No one!” Bordo shouted, laughing. “They do nothing for us. The young men still can’t find jobs. Nothing changes! Nothing changes!”


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