RABAT Morocco's Justice and Development Party (PJD) claimed victory on Saturday in a parliamentary election that should produce a stronger government after King Mohammed ceded some powers to prevent any spillover from Arab Spring uprisings.
The PJD, which finds its support largely among Morocco's poor, would be the second moderate Islamist party to lead a North African government since the start of the region's Arab Spring uprisings, following Tunisia.
But the party, which hopes to push Islamic finance but vows to steer clear of imposing a strict moral code on society, will have to join forces with others to form a government.
"Based on reports filed by our representatives at polling stations throughout the country, we are the winners. We won Rabat, Casablanca, Tangier, Kenitra, Sale, Beni Mellal and Sidi Ifni to cite just a few," Lahcen Daodi, second in command of the moderate Islamist party, told Reuters.
"Our party has won the highest number of seats," he said.
Government officials could not immediately confirm the party's assertion.
The king revived a reform process this year hoping to sap the momentum out of a protest movement and avoid the violence-ridden revolts in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Syria.
He has handed over more powers to the government, although he retains the final say on the economy, security and religion.
Some 13.6 million Moroccans out of a population of about 33 million were registered to vote in the country's ninth election since independence from France in 1956.
Voter turnout stood at 45 percent, Interior Minister Taib Cherkaoui said, up from a record low in 2007 when only 37 percent of 15.5 million registered voters turned out. The ministry has not accounted for the change in registered voters.
The polls "took place under normal conditions and a under a climate of mobilisation marked by fair competition and respect of electoral laws," Cherkaoui told reporters.
The first results will be issued later on Saturday, the minister added. In contrast to previous elections, Friday's vote was expected to be a closely-run contest between PJD and a new coalition of liberals with close ties to the royal palace.
But Mustapha Al Khalfi, a member of PJD's politburo, sounded a note of caution among the cries of victory.
"We have to wait for the final results because there was a lot of fraud, so we hope that it will not cost us what should be a resounding victory for our party," he said.
Lahcen Haddad, a prominent member of the so-called Alliance for Democracy, declined to comment.
Driss Yazami, who heads the official National Council for Human Rights, told the private Aswat radio that observers had recorded violations, including some potential voters being given food. "It did not reach a scale that can affect the overall course of the polls," Yazami said.
The king will pick the next prime minister from the party that wins the biggest number of seats. But whichever party or bloc comes first is unlikely to be able to form a government on its own.
PJD has said it aims to obtain a majority by joining forces with three parties in the current governing coalition, including the left-wing Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP) and the nationalist Istiqlal of Prime Minister Abbas Al Fassi.
Economists are keen to see the polls leading to the creation of a cohesive government that would be able to narrow a growing budget deficit, cut a 30-percent-plus youth unemployment rate and address the needs of 8.5 million destitute Moroccans.
Since becoming king in 1999, King Mohammed won international praise for his efforts to repair a dark legacy of human right abuses under the 38-year rule of his late father King Hassan. But his reform drive lost momentum over the last few years.
There remains a vocal minority who say his revived reforms are not enough. Thousands of people joined protests in several cities last weekend to back calls for a boycott of the election.
"Today marked a victory for the boycott," said Najib Chawki, an activist with the February 20 Movement, which has been leading protests since February to demand a British- or Spanish-style monarchy and an end to corruption.
"Only 6 million out of 21 million Moroccans eligible to vote took part in the polls. This sends a strong signal to authorities that Moroccans are not buying the proposed reforms. We will not give up until our demands are met," Chawki said.
The movement plans new nationwide protests on December 4.
(Editing by Elizabeth Piper)