RABAT // "I can read the Quran myself," said Souad, a young woman entering a voting station last Friday in Rabat, the Moroccan capital. "I don't need some political party telling me that Islam forbids everything." Attitudes such as Souad's spell trouble for the Justice and Development Party (PJD), Morocco's moderate Islamist opposition. As Moroccans voted for local councillors, the party was struggling against new rivals, a reputation for harsh moralising and what it calls manoeuvres by the government to stifle it.
Preliminary official results yesterday showed the PJD coming in sixth with just under five per cent of the vote, while its main competitor, the Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM), swept to the lead with nearly a fifth of council seats. "We gained a little but it's not what we had hoped," said Mustapha Ramid, who heads the PJD's parliamentary group, accusing rival parties of rampant vote-buying.
According to state media, international observers from the US and Paraguay confirmed the elections took place in "ideal conditions", with a turnout of 52.4 per cent. Launched in 1997, the PJD shot to prominence in 2002, when legislative elections quadrupled its parliamentary seats. Elections in 2007 made it the second-largest force in parliament. That has put the party at the heart of debate over Morocco's future. While many value the country's openness and ties to Europe, others want to emphasise its Islamic identity.
For the government, the PJD presents a rival that authorities are keen to rein in, said Mohammed Madani, a politics professor at Mohammed V University in Rabat. Despite past success, the PJD has faltered recently under political pressure from a government alarmed by its rise, Prof Madani said. "The PJD's goal now is to show that it is united." That requires a balancing act to woo more liberal working-class Moroccans like Souad, 27, while reassuring the PJD's religious base the party has not sacrificed Islam for entry into mainstream politics.
It also means fending off the PAM, founded last year by Fouad Ali el Himma, a friend of King Mohammed VI who has blazed into politics to challenge the government while supporting the monarchy. "The PAM has done a lot for people in my neighbourhood," said Souad, 27, a new PAM voter who declined to give her surname. "They've given money to the poor and the sick, and have a good programme of social services."
Such tactics undercut the PJD, which has so far won most support among educated urbanites. In Casablanca, Morocco's commercial capital, the PJD parliamentarian Basima Hakkaoui was campaigning last week to broaden the party's appeal. "Our list for this area includes an MP, a doctor, a tailor, a banker - it's a cross-section of Morocco," Mrs Hakkaoui told a gathering of about 80 women last Wednesday in a working-class quarter of dingy cafes and battered apartment towers. "Every one of them is ready to work to make your lives easier."
The women were shown a video of Mrs Hakkaoui excoriating government ministers and attending pro-Palestinian rallies. Applause and cheering shook the room, and the meeting ended with a prayer. "Voters want a party that speaks for their identity as Moroccans and as Muslims," Mrs Hakkaoui said. "We've been depicted as simply beards and veils, and increasingly the public is coming to see that that isn't the case."
"We're against violence and for democracy, a model of moderation," said Mr Ramid, the PJD parliamentary group leader. "Otherwise, we would never have been accepted on the political playing field." While other Arab nations have clamped down on Islamist movements, Morocco has used political pressure to "weaken the party without banning it", said Prof Madani. PJD leaders say late changes to the electoral law in 2007 were calculated to blunt its expected victory. In January, the interior ministry fired the PJD mayor of Meknes, a major city, over alleged mismanagement - a move that party leaders hinted was politically motivated. The PJD subsequently cut back its candidates last Friday to 40 per cent of districts.
Run-ins with the government have led the PJD to soften its image, said Taoufik Mousaif, a lawyer and member of the its national council. While some PJD leaders gripe about Morocco's music festivals and available alcohol, the party has abandoned much of its religious rhetoric to focus on boosting development and fighting corruption, which Mr Mousaif said has cost the party grassroots support. "Some activists have left, others are idle and many people simply no longer vote for anyone at all."