RABAT // The moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) is expected today to be proclaimed the winner of Morocco's parliamentary elections, which would make it the second Islamist party in North Africa - after Tunisia's Ennahda - to win a major election since the start of the Arab Spring in January.
The PJD has won 80 out of the 280 seats that had been decided in the 395-member lower house of parliament, according to partial results announced by the Moroccan interior ministry yesterday. Final results are to be announced today. The turnout was 45.4 per cent, a little more than 8 per cent higher than in the last elections in 2007.
The PJD secretary general, Abdelillah Benkirane, said yesterday that he expected his party to win about 100 seats when all the votes are counted.
Under the new Moroccan constitution, which was passed in July, the party with the most votes in the elections gets to form a new government after consulting with the king. But due to a proportional party representation system, any winning party would be forced to form a coalition government.
The PJD would need to forge a coalition representing 51 per cent of seats - that is 198 - to form a government.
Taoufiq Bouachrine, the publisher of Rabat's Akhbar Al Youm newspaper, said yesterday that the PJD had been expected to win, but not by such a large margin.
The partial results "have surprised everybody. The PJD has got almost double the number of seats of its closest contenders," Mr Bouachrine said in a telephone interview.
Mr Benkirane said his party has always been a proponent of introducing democratic change while preserving the status of the monarchy. "That's what happened today," he told a TV reporter.
"Quite humbly, we're ready to assume responsibility," he added. "We're optimistic, and we hope Moroccans won't be disappointed in us."
The Istiqlal party, which was the first-established party in the country and the winner of the last elections, came in second with 45 seats.
Mr Benkirane is now faced with two challenges. "First, he must forge alliances, and the Koutla [or the Bloc, a three party-coalition that includes the Istiqlal party] is his closest option," Mr Bouachrine noted.
"Second, he will have to negotiate with the palace about sovereign portfolios and sensitive senior posts and the like … This said, if everything goes democratically, Mr Benkirane will be Morocco's next head of government."
Mr Benkirane confirmed yesterday interest in starting talks with the Koutla, but left his party's options open. "PJD never hid its positive vibes towards the Koutla, but that won't prevent us from seeking alliances with other parties," he said on national television.
The National Rally of Independents (RNI), a technocrat-dominated party chaired by the incumbent finance minister, Salaheddine Mezouar, came in third, according to the partial results, with 38 seats.
The Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM), won 33 seats.
RNI has led the Coalition for Democracy, an eight-party bloc - including PAM - that observers say was forged ahead of the elections to counter the surge of the PJD in popularity.
"The Coalition for Democracy is as good as dead now," Mr Bouachrine said. "The bloc came into existence on the assumption that the RNI will win and easily form a government with allies. It didn't happen. Now they will be moving to the opposition."
Mr Benkirane, who is known for his down-to-earth and sometimes irreverent discourse, has been likened in the media to Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as their political parties have the same name and have been widely seen to have a similar moderate outlook on the role of religion in politics.
Mr Benkirane has also been compared to the head of Tunisia's Ennahda party, Rached Ghannouchi, whose party won national assembly elections last month.
"I'm no new Erdogan or new Ghannouchi. I'm Benkirane, as I was and still am," Mr Benkirane said this month before the elections.