Islamic party courts election victory in moderate Morocco
Islamic party courts election victory in moderate Morocco
Thursday, September 6,2007 15:51

The Islamic party dominating Morocco"s electoral season has many faces _ among them bareheaded young women in jeans, marketing students preaching the gospel of global markets and legions of poor and disenfranchised.
The Justice and Development Party"s cross-class, antiestablishment appeal could spell victory in parliamentary elections Friday. And that would pose a challenge to the secular government in this resort-lined Muslim kingdom _ and to its Western allies.
Morocco forms one front in the broader battle for Islam playing out across and beyond the Arab world, between forces of moderation and extremism. King Mohamed VI is the latest leader to face the dilemma of political Islam: whether to co-opt its adherents, oppress them, or leave them be and run the risk that they use democratic mechanisms to carry out a hard-line agenda _ and ultimately threaten democracy itself.
Such fears were behind a decision in neighboring Algeria to abort 1992 parliamentary elections that an Islamic party was poised to win. The move touched off a brutal insurgency that still simmers today.
«Our victory ... is nothing to worry about,» Saad Eddine Othmani, head of Morocco"s Justice and Development Party, or PJD, said Wednesday. Speaking to The Associated Press on the campaign trail, he added, «Moderate Islam is the best rampart against extremism.
The PJD cites Islam as its driving inspiration in a country that is overwhelmingly Muslim, though where many women shun head coverings and bars are widespread. Its leadership and message are moderate, though some members may hold radical views.
The PJD"s platform _ streamline bureaucracy, root corruption out of the courts and gear university education more directly toward the job market _ resonates among the country"s poor and jobless, who feel abandoned by a government widely seen as self-serving.
The party accepts the monarch, and wants Morocco to maintain its good relations with Washington. U.S. officials say they deal with the PJD as they do with Morocco"s other political parties.
The king _ who wields ultimate authority in this country of 30 million regardless of election outcomes _ is struggling to keep up his democratic credentials while suppressing terrorism that threatens to undermine his regime.
The country"s largest Islamic political movement, Justice and Charity or Adl wal Ihsan, is banned from politics. But so far, the government has chosen to carefully embrace the PJD.
Othmani said his PJD has softened its image in recent years _ especially after 2003 suicide bombings in Casablanca blamed on Islamic terrorists _ to broaden its support base. It has played down calls by hard liners to cut off thieves" hands and force women into head scarves.
Still, some fear an Islamic-minded government could threaten Morocco"s moderate reputation in the region, which helps fuel an economy reliant on tourism.
«I have the impression they are hiding their real ideas. This is what worries us,» said Amina Elhaja, pushing her 2-year-old son in a stroller past a PJD rally on a dusty lot, where supporters chanted «Justice, Development
Mustapha Ramid, a high-profile party member, is the face of the PJD that secularists fear. A defense attorney for Muslim terrorist suspects, he is loudly critical of Israel and the Moroccan government.
«For now, the goal is to develop democracy,» said Ramid. But in the long run, Ramid wants all-encompassing Sharia, or Islamic law, established in Morocco.
While PJD leader Othmani visits voters" living rooms to spread the PJD"s message, secular parties _ including the two biggest, the conservative Istiqlal and the center-left Socialist Union of Popular Forces or USFP _ have barely bothered campaigning.
The PJD won 42 seats in the 325-seat parliament in the last elections in 2003, forming the largest opposition group to the governing coalition.
This time, the party is expected to beat the top two parties in that coalition, Istiqlal and USFP. Polls are rare here, but observers predict the PJD could double its seats _ even after the government redrew constituencies this spring to blunt its expected victory.
The party has tapped a sense of disillusionment among the urban middle class. A cluster of women with teenage children murmured in approval as Othmani, on an informal campaign visit Wednesday, talked of mending Morocco"s morality.
Islamic parties in many countries have won support by stepping in where governments have failed, providing public services to Muslim poor and wielding an ideology that «appeals to emotions, traditions and piety,» said Amr Hamzawy, an expert on such parties at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
While most Arab governments are strong enough to win political shoving matches with Islamic parties, they are frightened by «the capacity of Islamists to get out the vote,» said Hamzawy, using a term for those who say their political goals are inspired by Islam. «Elections are becoming less controllable.
If it comes out on top, the PJD should be given a prominent role in government. Othmani is angling for the prime minister"s job, and thinks he has a «50 percent chance,» though few expect the king to go that far.
Instead, analysts predict the party will be forced into a coalition with secularists.
The election also poses a risk for the PJD: If it joins the government, it risks losing street credibility and pushing unemployed young supporters toward more radical activity.
«It"s a risk we have to take,» Othmani said.
John Thorne contributed to this report.