WORLD

A rare secular victory in an Arab country

MEG FLOYD September 24 2007
WORLD

A rare secular victory in an Arab country

MEG FLOYD September 24 2007

A rare secular victory in an Arab country

WORLD

MEG FLOYD

Given the prevailing trend in other parts of the Islamic world, it was an upset of sorts when the conservative-leaning secular party Istiqlal emerged as the winner in Morocco’s recent elections. Istiqlal won 52 of 325 seats, five more than the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD), which had been expected to win, and whose growing strength had worried its secular rivals.

Recent but cautious social and economic reforms have boosted industry and investment in this North African kingdom, but grinding poverty and high unemployment continue to plague the country. Filling the gap in basic services are hundreds of local groups and aid organizations that provide everything from health care and literacy skills to rural infrastructure. The PJD had partnered with Islamic civic associations to focus on grassroots politics, pledging to fight corruption and create jobs. But the PJD’s approach failed to strike a chord, and voter turnout plunged to 37 per cent.

Morocco’s complex voting system discourages outright majorities. The final allocation of seats hangs on negotiations with palace officials in the days after the vote. Istiqlal has announced it will continue its alliance with two socialist parties, giving them the majority they need to form a government. But real power will remain with King Mohammed VI, who is executive head of state, military chief and religious leader. He will name a prime minister before parliament convenes Oct. 12.

And then there is the new role to be forged by the PJD.

Will it be part of an awkward coalition, or will it remain in opposition? And could its more strident Islamist supporters turn to violence similar to what Algeria has experienced? For now, hopes are running high that Morocco will preserve its recent progressive moves toward privatization, bolstering women’s rights, friendly ties to the United States, and expanding tourism. The U.S. sent its congratulations, no doubt relieved that in a volatile neighbourhood, this fledgling democracy forges on. M