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Morocco votes in test for Islamist government

voteMoroccans began voting Friday in local elections seen as a test for the ruling Islamists, who swept to power nearly four years ago after Arab Spring protests that prompted reforms by the monarchy.

About 15 million Moroccans were eligible to vote in the municipal and regional polls, considered a gauge of the popularity of Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane and his government, a year ahead of a general election.

In 2011, Benkirane’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) became the North African country’s first Islamist party to win a national election, and the first to lead a government.

That vote followed concessions from King Mohammed VI, the scion of a monarchy that has ruled the country for 350 years.

A new constitution curbed some, but not all, of his near-absolute powers as autocratic regimes toppled in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Previously the monarch could choose his prime minister. Now he must appoint a candidate from the party that wins the most seats in parliament.

Around 32,000 seats on local and regional bodies were at stake in Friday’s vote, which will offer a snapshot of the political climate.

Polls opened at 8:00 am (0700 GMT) across the kingdom and were due to close at 7:00 pm.

Benkirane remains popular in the conservative country, despite limited success in tackling corruption, and he is credited with lowering the budget deficit to less than five percent of gross domestic product (GDP), down from seven.

But his main rival Mustapha Bakkoury, leader of the opposition Authenticity and Modernity Party, has criticised Benkirane’s rule.

“His priority over the last four years has been his own clan, rather than all the people of the country,” said Bakkoury, a close adviser to the king.

– ‘Walking path of democracy’ –

While Morocco is considered one of the most stable countries in the region, it faces a challenge dealing with Islamic extremism.

The authorities have frequently announced the arrest of “terrorist cells” and reported seizing weapons from groups they say have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State jihadist group.

With less than half of registered voters taking part in the election of November 2011, turnout at Friday’s polls was being closely watched for an indication of the state of political transition.

“In a Morocco that is learning to walk along the path of democracy, participation in elections is not a luxury; rather it is the first step along the road to building the future,” independent daily Akhbar Al-Yaoum said.

Turnout was slow in the morning in Rabat, according to an AFP journalist, with most voters expected to cast their ballots after the weekly Friday prayers in mosques.

The interior ministry said the election had begun smoothly.

The official MAP news agency, however, reported that voting was disrupted briefly in one village north of Marrakesh after eight people entered a polling station and smashed a ballot box.

It said the authorities were searching for the culprits, whose motive was unclear.



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