Image: Abdelilah Benkirane
Abdeljalil Bounhar  /  AP
Abdelilah Benkirane, the secretary general of Morocco's Islamist Justice and Development Party center, reacts after it became clear his party is on track to become the largest party in Morocco's new parliament at the Party headquarters in Rabat, Morocco, on Sunday Nov. 27. Moroccans voted to elect a new parliament after the king brought forward elections in response to Arab Spring demonstrations over the past nine months.
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updated 11/27/2011 3:32:02 PM ET 2011-11-27T20:32:02

The victory of an Islamist Party in Morocco's parliamentary elections appears to be one more sign that religious-based parties are benefiting the most from the new freedoms brought by the Arab Spring.

Across the Middle East, parties referencing Islam have made great strides, offering an alternative to corrupt, long serving dictators, who have often ruled with close Western support.

The Justice and Development Party dominated Morocco's elections through a combination of good organization, an outsider status and not being too much of a threat to Morocco's all-powerful king.

By taking 107 seats out of the 395 seats, almost twice as many as the second place finisher, the party ensured that King Mohammed VI must pick the next prime minister from its ranks and to form the next government out of the dozen parties in Morocco's parliament.

It is the first time the PJD — as it is known by its French initials — will be part of the government and its outsider status could be just what Morocco, wracked by pro-democracy protests, needs.

Although it didn't bring down the government, the North African kingdom of 32 million, just across the water from Spain, was still touched by the waves of unrest that swept the Arab world following the revolution in Tunisia, with tens of thousands marching in the streets calling for greater freedoms and less corruption.

The king responded by modifying the constitution to give the next parliament and prime minister more powers, and held early elections.

But there was still a vigorous movement to boycott the elections. There was only a 45 percent turnout in Friday's polls, and many of those who went to vote turned in blank ballots or crossed out every party listed to show their dissatisfaction with the system.

Election observers from the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute estimated that up to a fifth of the ballots they saw counted had been defaced in such a way.

In the face of such widespread distrust of politics, historian and political analyst Maati Monjib said a government led by a new political force could be the answer.

"If the PJD forms a coalition in a free and independent way and not with a party of the Makhzen," he said referring to the catch-all phrase for the entrenched establishment around the king, "this will be a big step forward for Morocco."

In Tunisia, Morocco, and on Monday most likely also Egypt, newly enfranchised populations are choosing religious parties as a rebuke to the old systems, which often espoused liberal or left-wing ideologies.

"The people link Islam and political dignity," said Monjib, who describes himself as coming from the left end of the political spectrum. "There is a big problem of dignity in the Arab world and the people see the Islamists as a way of getting out of the sense of subjugation and inferiority towards the West."

Like the Ennahda Party in Tunisia, the PJD is also from the more moderate end of the Islamist spectrum. The party's leader, Abdelilah Benkirane, supports a strong role for the monarchy and the movement has always been careful to play the political game.

The party doesn't describe itself as "Islamist" but rather as having an Islamic "reference," meaning that its policies follow the moral dictates of the religion.

The PJD has also avoided focusing on issues like the sale of alcohol or women's headscarves that have obsessed Islamist parties elsewhere in the region, and instead has talked about the need to revamp Morocco's abysmal education system, root out rampant corruption and find jobs for the millions of unemployed.

Mohammed Tozy, a professor of politics and prominent expert on Islamic movements, said the party has always had support in society, but in this election it managed to broaden its appeal.

"What they lacked before was the confidence of the public and now they have been able to go beyond their traditional constituency and give assurances to the business and middle class that they weren't totally Islamist," he said.

Part of the new success of Islamist parties across the region is due to the Turkish model. An Islamist party has been in power in Turkey for almost a decade now and has shown that "modernity and Islam can be allied effectively," said Tozy.

In Morocco, the PJD is widely acknowledged as being the best organized in the country, relying on grass roots networks to promote candidates rather than just enlisting prominent local figures to attract votes.

It also benefited from the push for change in the country and the discrediting of the parties closely associated with the status quo. In particular, the Party of Authenticity and Modernity formed by a friend of the king, which was the largest in the outgoing parliament, lost seats in the new elections.

The PJD has had an ambivalent relationship with the activists of the pro-democracy movement. Several high-ranking party officials joined the street demonstrations and expressed their solidarity, while Benkirane himself warned against the protests — possibly to stay in the palace's good graces.

It would not be the first time that Morocco's kings have looked to the opposition for help. In the final years of his reign, the current king's father, Hassan II, brought the leftist Union of Progressive Socialist Forces into the government for the first time, even letting its leader serve as prime minister.

Little changed and the party lost much of its cachet in society and has since plummeted in the polls.

Monjib said, however, that if Morocco is going to make it out of its current political crisis, this kind of manipulation must end.

"The palace can't keep playing the game of emptying the parties of their substance, marginalizing them with the citizens, giving them the semblance of power, but not real power so they lose credibility," he said.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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