RABAT (Reuters) - Morocco’s moderate Islamists believe they can win an election this month, buoyed by the resurgence of Islamists in the region since the “Arab Spring” uprisings, but predict opponents will use fraud to try to keep them out of power.
The November 25 parliamentary election is a test of the commitment by Morocco’s ruler, King Mohammed, to respond to the uprisings by moving the kingdom closer to democracy and ceding some of his powers to elected officials.
It takes place a month after Tunisia, birthplace of this year’s series of revolts, handed power to a previously-banned party of moderate Islamists, sending a message that the political landscape had been reshaped across the Arab world.
Morocco has had no revolution, the king remains the most powerful figure in the country and the election is being fought by groups, including the Islamists, linked to the establishment.
But in a country where the ruling elite sees evolution not revolution as the best response to the Arab Spring, the opposition Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) is counting on a gradual yet real change.
“The Tunisian experience has set the trend: There is not much of a difference between Moroccans and Tunisians. Also, the West is becoming more familiarised with us,” the party’s second-in-command, Lahcen Daodi, told Reuters.
He forecast that his party will win 70-80 seats in the 395-member parliament, making it the biggest contingent and improving on its second place in the 2007 parliamentary election.
Under constitutional reforms backed by the monarch earlier this year, if the PJD emerges as the biggest group in parliament it will nominate the prime minister, though it will govern in a coalition with other parties.
It says it will create a government alliance with three secularist groups, including Istiqlal, the party of the prime minister, Abbas Al Fassi.
There is a risk, Daodi said, that his opponents could cheat to subvert the will of the electorate.
Parliamentary elections in Morocco have often been marred by vote-buying although officials maintain they are democratic and transparent.
“Money is still floating freely. Some evil forces are trying to keep Moroccans in the gutter. But we also understand that authorities can’t be everywhere,” said Daodi.
“The higher (the voter turnout) the better it is for us because it will complicate vote-buying.”
The PJD’s main opponent in the election is a newly-formed alliance called the Coalition for Democracy. It promises a break with the staid and cosy politics of the past, but opponents say it is the establishment in a new guise. It is centred on a party founded by a friend of the king and the finance minister is one of its leaders.
A leaked U.S. diplomatic cable said the PJD has the largest popular support base in Morocco, yet since its formation in 1998 it has been unable to convert that into power.
It is influenced by Turkey’s moderate ruling AK Party, like the Ennahda party which won Tunisia’s election last month. It does not propose imposing a strict Islamic moral code on society, but says it will encourage Islamic finance.
The party stresses its support for the monarchy, in contrast to Justice and Charity, an Islamist opposition group which is banned and took part in demonstrations this year to demand radical democratic reform.
The PJD appeals to Morocco’s vast numbers of poor voters by focussing on economic and social issues. Its lawmakers are also known for being the most active in a parliament that has traditionally been plagued by high rates of absenteeism.
The party’s underlying popularity, and the shift in perception towards Islamists in the wake of the Arab Spring, mean this election could be different from previous votes.
“Islamists are much more acceptable today than they were a few years ago and the scaremongering of the past will no longer work,” said Lise Storm, a senior Middle East politics lecturer at Britain’s Exeter University.
“After the elections in Tunisia, Moroccans ... will wonder: ‘Why not here?'”
Editing by Christian Lowe and Janet Lawrence