updated 9/8/2007 10:49:45 PM ET 2007-09-09T02:49:45

Voters in Morocco deprived an Islamist party of an expected parliamentary victory, handing it instead to a secular conservative party that is a member of the ruling coalition, according to preliminary results announced Saturday.

If confirmed, the results of Friday’s vote would mean continuity for this important U.S. ally in the Arab world.

In a surprisingly strong showing, the conservative and secular Istiqlal party won 52 of the 325 seats in the lower house of parliament, Interior Minister Chakib Benmussa said. The Islam-inspired Justice and Development Party or PJD, whose growing strength in recent years had worried its secular rivals, had 47 seats. But that was far short of the 80 seats the party had hoped for.

Final authority rests with King Mohamed VI, who will name a prime minister based on the election results. The prime minister will then name a government, likely to be an awkward coalition that would include the PJD for the first time.

Istiqlal bolstered its parliamentary representation by four seats, while the PJD gained five seats.

The PJD has garnered strength in recent years by tapping disillusionment with a government seen as increasingly distant from voters’ needs, focusing on the poor and jobless youth. Nearly 5 million of Morocco’s 33 million people live on less than $2 a day, according to the World Bank.

Unemployment, corruption and poverty were voters’ top concerns, not religion. Yet the vote raised broader questions about the growing strength of political Islam in Morocco and beyond.

Vote-tampering accusations
The PJD accused the ruling secular parties of buying votes and appealing to voters with hasty public works projects to thwart its predicted victory.

“It is sickening,” Lahcen Daoudi, the PJD’s No. 2 official, told reporters at party headquarters in Rabat. “The PJD has won, but Morocco has lost.”

The interior minister insisted the vote was “transparent.” He acknowledged several irregularities, including people voting twice in different districts, but said such incidents were limited.

Morocco is a moderate Muslim nation known for its relaxed resorts where many women shun the veil and bars are common. But the North African kingdom has also spawned Islamic terrorists — including those who staged the 2004 Madrid bombings and suicide attacks in Casablanca in 2003 and earlier this year. That violence has prompted a government crackdown that threatens the king’s democratic reputation.

Extremists banned from government
The PJD has distanced itself from extremism, and from some members’ calls for applying Islamic law. Morocco’s largest Islamic movement — Justice and Charity or Adl wal Ihsan, which openly advocates Islamic government — is banned from politics.

The election was marred by a record-low turnout of 37 percent. That was an embarrassment for the government and the lowest in the country’s young democratic history.

“It’s disappointing, but not surprising. There were no grand debates, no serious engagement with the voters to explain to them the stakes of this election,” said 26-year-old Moufidi Mohssen, a business student in Casablanca.

The center-left Socialist Union of Popular Forces or USFP, which won the last elections in 2002 and ruled together with Istiqlal, dropped to fifth place with 36 seats. The centrist Popular Movement and RNI parties were in third and fourth, with 43 and 38 seats.

A total of 23 parties and five independents will serve in the new parliament, according to the results.

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