(Updates with turnout in fourth paragraph.)
Nov. 25 (Bloomberg) -- Moroccans are voting today in an election that the king promised would be followed by a shift of some royal powers to an elected premier for the first time.
Among 32 parties competing for seats in the 395-member Chamber of Representatives is Prime Minister Abbas el-Fassi’s Istiqlal, or Independence Party, which won the last vote in 2007 and has taken part in almost every government since independence was gained in 1956 with the end of the French and Spanish protectorates. The party says its main aims include maintaining growth of about 5 percent and inflation of about 2 percent
The Justice and Development Party, or PJD, which came second in 2007, is also seeking seats. The Islamist group led by Abdelilah Benkirane pledges to create about 240,000 jobs and ban the media from “objectifying” women’s bodies. Like the other major parties, it is nationalist and pro-monarchy. Also on the ballot is the newly created Alliance for Democracy, a bloc of eight parties led by Finance Minister Salah Eddine Mezouar that has vowed to cut corporate taxes to 25 percent from 30 percent.
The vote is seen as a test of King Mohammed VI’s commitment to follow through on constitutional changes initiated this year amid pro-democracy demonstrations calling for a reduction in the monarch’s powers. Turnout among the 13.6 million registered voters will be watched as an indication of public enthusiasm for those reforms. In 2007, a below-average 37 percent went to the polls. Turnout was 22.4 percent by 3 p.m. Rabat time, according to the Interior Ministry. The polls close at 7 p.m.
The elections will be a three-way race between the PJD, Istiqlal and the National Rally of Independents or RNI, said Abdellah Tourabi, a researcher at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, or Sciences Po, who specializes in Islamic movements in Morocco.
“The PJD is the front-runner; it has a big presence in the cities, and much less in rural areas and in the Sahara,” he said today by phone. “Istiqlal, because it is best-managed party in Morocco, is very likely to be in the top three. The RNI will benefit from a transfer of candidates who will be elected within the PAM,” or the Authenticity and Modernity Party.
The results may be announced as early as tomorrow. Morocco bans opinion polls that predict the outcome of a vote.
While the shift of power to an elected government makes this contest important for Morocco and for the wider region as it pushes for democracy, voters remain apathetic because only the PJD has a clear ideology, he said.
“I doubt the turnout will be over 40 percent,” Tourabi said late yesterday. “People don’t see any difference between the parties. Voting for left or right comes down to the same thing in a country where only the king is trusted and who in reality controls the country.”
While Omar El Hyani, a 27-year-old engineer, voted in the capital of Rabat, he said he has little hope that the elections will bring change.
“In the absence of a real desire from the regime to reform itself, they will remain a tool in the hands of the Makhzen to legitimize its actions,” he said, using the Moroccan term for warehouse, a reference to the royal advisers, business leaders and top bureaucrats who hold power behind the scenes. “I decided to vote this morning to stand in the way of certain corrupted figures. Parliament is a place where many laws are voted on, and we cannot afford to leave it in the hands of a political mafia.”
Today’s balloting, originally scheduled for September 2012, was moved forward in response to the protests that began in February. While pushing Morocco toward change more quickly, the demonstrations haven’t reached the scale of the movements that toppled governments in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.
In response to the unrest, a new constitution was drafted on the king’s orders and approved by voters in a July 1 referendum. It provides for the naming of a prime minister from the party that comes first in the vote, rather than leaving the appointment to the king’s decision. It also gives the premier the right to dissolve parliament and cedes to lawmakers the right to grant amnesty to prisoners.
While many demonstrators backed the constitution, some said it doesn’t go far enough in shifting power away from the king, who appointed the members of the panel that drafted it. The monarch remains the country’s military, secular and religious leader.
The so-called February 20 youth movement has said it will boycott the election. Its members still take to the streets every Sunday, calling for a parliamentary monarchy and punishment of officials accused of corruption.
Morocco’s sound macroeconomic policies, put in place over the past decade, and political reforms mean it is well placed to respond to the unrest, the International Monetary Fund said in July. Inflation is under control, credit continues to grow, and non-agricultural gross domestic product may reach 6 percent this year, the IMF said. The main challenge is achieving a GDP rate that will help reduce unemployment, which was at 9 percent and hitting the young, women and graduates hardest, it said.
--Editors: Heather Langan, Digby Lidstone, Karl Maier, Alan Crosby
To contact the reporters on this story: Aida Alami in Rabat, Morocco, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at email@example.com.