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Islamic party makes headway in Morocco

Sunday, September 29, 2002

The Associated Press

RABAT, Morocco -- A fundamentalist party that wants to apply Islamic law in Morocco, including chopping off robbers' hands, performed strongly in elections, government officials said. A party leader said they expected to double their seats in parliament.

A full 12 hours after polling stations closed Friday, official results were still unavailable Saturday morning. On Saturday morning only a few bleary-eyed reporters and officials remained at a party the Interior Ministry had thrown the night before to announce election results.

Government officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said the Party of Justice and Development, the only Islamic group in parliament, registered strong gains. The PJD previously had 14 seats in the legislature's 325-seat lower house.

"We think we made a very visible advance," said a PJD leader, Mustapha Ramid, in a telephone interview. "We'll have double the number of lawmakers, or more."

Ramid said that long-term, his party wants to see the application of Islamic law in Morocco, including punishing robbery by amputation. But he also said they would only seek change from within the political system and that Morocco, a moderate Muslim-Arab nation, was not ready for Islamic law in the short-term. Ramid said his first priority would be to push for tighter laws against corrupt lawmakers.

"Is the rise of an Islamic party bad for the country? Not at all. We are realists and moderates," he said. "There's nothing to worry about. There is nothing that is scary about us."

The election was the first under King Mohammed VI and marked an important step in a process of liberalization he launched after ascending the throne in 1999, following the death of his father, Hassan II.

The government promised that Friday's poll, for the first time in the country's history, would be free and fair. By and large, many candidates and voters said they were satisfied that the election was cleaner than in the past. Previous polls were clouded by vote-buying and fraud.

Officials reported several cases of election-related violence, attempted vote-buying and other problems.

Near Marrakech, 12 people, including a candidate, were detained for allegedly attacking supporters of an opposing party, the official MAP news agency reported. A campaign director was arrested on suspicion of vote-buying and several other people were accused of violating the law by campaigning on election day.

Turnout for the election was expected to exceed 50 percent, the interior minister said. Turnout at the last election in 1997 was 58 percent. For the first time, 30 seats were reserved for women. The last parliament had just two women.

A host of problems awaited the winning lawmakers, not least convincing poor, unemployed and disenchanted Moroccans that parliament can help improve lives, even though much power still resides with the king.

The king was a vocal supporter of the elections. But he appoints the prime minister and maintains control of key ministries including foreign affairs, justice, the interior, defense and religious affairs. Strong criticism of the king's rule remains taboo.

On Thursday, police in the northern town of Berkane arrested an election worker from a left-wing party and charged him with "insults against the monarchy" after he called for a reduction in the king's authority, said his lawyer, Mustapha Bencherif. Mohamed Loukah, faces one to five years in prison if convicted, the lawyer said.

A dizzying 26 parties, nearly a dozen of them less than two years old, contested the election. The array of choice and a complicated system for allocating seats made it unlikely that one party would get a majority. The elections were expected to be followed by weeks of uncertainty until parties piece together a coalition.

Because many Moroccans are illiterate -- the government said 61 percent of the 14 million registered voters were unschooled -- parties were identified on ballots with symbols, such as a key, an alarm clock, a wasp or a dagger.

In the old fortified quarter of Rabat, the capital, men in long robes and women with headscarves and hands patterned intricately with henna filed into one of the 37,500 polling stations and dropped their votes into transparent ballot boxes. Then, they pressed their thumbs onto pads moistened with indelible ink, an anti-fraud measure designed to stop people from voting more than once.

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