September 4, 2015 / 1:32 PM / 4 years ago

Moroccans vote in local election test for ruling Islamists

Abdelillah Benkirane, secretary-general of the Islamist Justice and Development party (PJD), casts his ballot at a polling station in Rabat September 4, 2015. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

RABAT (Reuters) - Morocco’s ruling Islamist party on Friday faced a major test of its dominance as polls opened for local elections for which most opposition parties have campaigned on anti-corruption platforms and against privileges for the elite.

The Interior Ministry said polls had opened without any hitches in the vote for 30,000 local council seats and nearly 700 regional assembly posts among nearly 30 parties. First results were expected late on Friday.

Morocco’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) that leads the governing coalition held only a few towns in 2009 elections and Friday’s vote will show to what extent they have made a difference at grassroots level after rising to power in the wake of the Arab Spring revolts.

“When I see what is happening elsewhere in the region, I see voting is the best way to protect our country,” said Kenza, a recently graduated student at a polling station in downtown Rabat, who declined to give her full name.

Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane’s PJD party ran on a platform of changing “old regime” ways and fighting corruption but has never challenged the king as the country’s ultimate authority, nor has any group or party except for a small leftist coalition.

With limited reforms, heavier public spending and tough state security measures, Morocco managed to calm the protests that echoed those that brought down autocratic leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya in 2011. The king also retained his grip on security, the army and religion.

Within the limits of the constitutional monarchy, other parties may look to challenge PJD dominance, including the conservative Independence Party and the Authenticity and Modernity party (PAM).

PAM has been weakened by the loss of its leader, an associate of the king. It was also criticized as a symbol of corruption by protesters in 2011.

Some leftist groups and the largest Islamist movement in the country, tougher in their criticism of the monarchy, has boycotted the political process and the election.

Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Louise Ireland

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