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Islamist party takes most seats in Morocco poll

Paul Schemm

An Islamist Party is on track to become the largest party in Morocco's new parliament with a dominant showing after two-thirds of the seats were announced by the Interior Ministry on Saturday.

The Justice and Development Party has taken 80 seats, almost twice as many as the next most successful party, with 282 seats announced out of the 395 up for grabs in the nationwide vote a day earlier.

Barring a massive upset, the PJD _ known by its French initials _ will be the largest party in the new parliament and charged with forming a new government _ making another Islamist victory in an election brought about by the Arab Spring.

Last month, Tunisia's Ennahda Party took 40 percent of the seats in elections in the country that started a wave of pro-democracy uprisings across the Middle East after its people overthrew their long-serving president.

Egypt is set to hold elections of its own on Monday that are also expected to be dominated by Islamist parties, lending increasing weight to the view that religious movements have been some of the biggest benefactors of the Arab Spring.

Like the rest of the region, Morocco was swept by pro-democracy protests decrying lack of freedoms and widespread corruption, which the king attempted to defuse over the summer by ordering the constitution modified to grant more powers to the Parliament and prime minister and then holding elections a year earlier.

Activists, however, have called the moves insincere and clamored for a boycott.

Complete results, including those of 90 seats reserved for women and youth and the 23 remaining regular seats, will be announced Sunday. PJD is expected to ultimately win up to 110 seats.

The Islamists' biggest rivals in Morocco's elections is a coalition of eight liberal, pro-government parties led by Finance Minister Salaheddine Mezouar, which has amassed more than 111 seats, but under the new constitution the party with the most seats gets first crack at forming a new government.

The Islamists must now find coalition partners, with their natural allies being the "Democratic Bloc," an alliance of the right-of-center Istiqlal, or Independence Party, the left-of-center Union of Socialist Progressive Forces and the former communist party _ venerable political parties that have been eclipsed by Mezouar's so-called Group of Eight.

"We are ready to work with the PJD on the condition that all the parties of the bloc participate in this government," affirmed Mohammed al-Khalifa, a member of the Istiqlal Party's political bureau.

Ali Bouabid, a member of the USFP's leadership, agreed that an alliance was certainly possible and must be discussed.

"If the bloc allies with the PJD it must be on the basis of a strong political program," he said. Such an alliance would be 165 seats strong and a majority of the results announced so far.

In recent years Morocco's Islamists have cultivated an image as honest outsiders battling corruption, and seeking to improve services and increase employment, rather than focusing on moral issues such as whether women wear the Islamic headscarf or the sale of alcohol.

Morocco, a close U.S. ally and popular European tourist destination suffers from high unemployment and widespread poverty.

With dozens of parties running and a complex system of proportional representation, Morocco's parliaments are typically divided up between many parties each with no more than a few dozen seats, requiring complex coalitions that are then dominated by the king.

The government announced a 45-percent turnout in Friday's contest, slightly more than legislative elections in 2007, but still less than local elections in 2009 and the summer's constitutional referendum.

There are almost 13.5 million registered voters in this North African kingdom of 32 million, though it is estimated that there are many more people of voting age not registered, something an European observer team noted in their report that otherwise praised the election as free and fair.

"The completeness of these lists are a key element of the electoral process and the delegation regrets that the current system, according to some, does not make it easy for citizens to register. In effect, a considerable part of the some 20 million Moroccans of election age are not on the lists," the Council of Europe said in a statement.

As in 2007, a significant number of the ballots cast were invalid, in some cases because voters marked them incorrectly, but in others it was clearly a form of protest with the entire ballot or all the parties crossed out.

The U.S.-based National Democratic Institute, which sent an election observer mission to Morocco, estimated that 20 percent of the ballots they saw during counting were invalid, suggesting a "citizen interest in further and deeper political reforms," according to its statement.

"The vigor with which some people expressed their protests on their ballot form was noted by many of our observers in all parts of the country," said Bob Rae, a member of the delegation and the leader of Canada's Liberal Party.

The Associated Press