November 27, 2011 / 10:19 PM / 8 years ago

Moroccan opposition warns of silent majority

RABAT (Reuters) - Morocco’s parliamentary election shows most people are not interested in King Mohammed’s reforms, the main opposition group said, vowing to push ahead with protests to press for a constitutional monarchy and an end to corruption.

Final results from Friday’s vote, brought forward by almost a year as part of the reform drive, handed the Justice and Development Party (PJD) the second victory for Islamists in the region in the wake of the “Arab Spring” uprisings.

Morocco has not had a revolution of the kind seen elsewhere in north Africa and its monarch is still firmly in charge. But it has witnessed protests inspired by Arab uprisings and the king has responded with limited reforms.

The banned al-Adl Wal Ihsane (Justice and Spirituality) has been a major backer of the protests organized by the February 20 Movement, which also includes secularist activists and small left-wing parties which called for a boycott of the polls.

“A quarter of Moroccans eligible to vote took part in this election. We don’t want to discuss what led many of them to vote, such as pressure by government officials and corruption,” Fathallah Arsalane, a member of the group’s Guidance Council, told Reuters in an interview.

The interior ministry said the voter turnout stood at 45.4 percent of 13.5 million registered voters. Official figures show that the number of Moroccans eligible to vote nears 22 million.

“That many people have not taken part in the polls does not mean that they don’t care. This silent majority should be a cause of concern because once it explodes you will not be able to predict the next course of events,” Arsalane said.

Set up in 1987, the group is widely-believed to be Morocco’s largest and most active Islamist movement. It is mostly active in spreading Islam and helping the poor but it is banned from politics due mostly to hostile rhetoric toward the monarchy, unlike the PJD which emphasises its support for the king.

FURTHER REFORM

The U.S.-based National Democratic Institute (NDI), which monitored the election, said a “lack of voter enthusiasm, calls for an election day boycott, and the significant number of invalid and spoiled ballots collectively signal citizen interest in further and deeper reform.”

Since his enthronement in 1999, King Mohammed has won international praise for his efforts to end the human rights abuses common under the 38-year rule of his father King Hassan. But an early reform drive lost momentum.

When demonstrations inspired by the Arab Spring flared in February, he revived the reform process with constitutional amendments that took much wind out of the protest movement.

“You may say the reforms have managed to weaken the protests if these have stopped, but they didn’t. We will continue with protests throughout the country,” Arsalane said.

PJD deserved to win like “Islamists would win anywhere else in the Arab world if free and transparent elections are held,” Arsalane said, but he noted that it may not be any different from parties that have led previous governments.

“This is not to say that PJD does not mean well for the people ... They are honest people who love their country. But it will be in a coalition with other parties.

“Parties execute the ruler’s policies. We have seen how nationalist and socialist parties were allowed to lead the government after years in the opposition. They just couldn’t do much. The Makhzen either finds parties that will follow the course it desires or it sets up new parties to do the job.”

Makhzen is the secretive and influential court elite that often act as a shadow cabinet to the elected government.

“PJD has credibility,” Arsalane said of a party which he said has “brotherly” relations with his group.

“It may bring about some changes, but they will be cosmetic. But this is not the time for partial reforms, it is time for real change. People do not want one gram of democracy.

“It’s in the palace’s interest to opt for a real break,” he said noting that authorities could have sent signals such as freeing prisoners of conscience or starting trials of officials accused of corruption.

Arsalane admitted protests in Morocco lacked “enough bottom-up pressure” and attributed this to a centuries-old monarchy, its backing from major parties and fears of the blood-letting seen in Libya and Syria.

He noted however that Morocco stands to lose some of its regional prestige with the democratic transitions taking place in Tunisia and Libya.

“The question for us in Morocco is whether the regime will be able to stay ahead and introduce real reform before hitting the wall,” Arsalane said.

Reporting By Souhail Karam; editing by Philippa Fletcher

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