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Morocco election surprises

The longer you stay in Morocco, the less you feel like you understand. That’s something I’ve heard a lot from foreign observers who’ve been here longer than I have. It’s a country with many centers of political power, with a fluid political system that awards seats proportionately — virtually ensuring no party wins a majority.

The results of Friday’s local elections seem to be a good example of that fluidity. A party that’s existed for less than a year — the Party of Authenticity and Modernity — won the most votes and the largest block of seats nationwide, 21.7 percent. Similar to municipal governments in the United States, town and village councils oversee local development. But they also elect a majority of representatives in the upper house of parliament. One outcome that was not a surprise: women took more than 3,400 local seats nationwide, thanks to a law that guarantees them a minimum of 12 percent of total slots. In the last round of elections in 2003, before the quota, just 127 women were elected.

Some attribute the new party’s success to its close alliance with the king, who holds the levers of power here. PAM founder Fouad Ali el Himma is a friend of King Mohammad VI. The new party also received a boost when many candidates with established reputations switched their alliance to PAM from other parties.

Despite its royal connections, PAM has sought to position itself as a political outsider. Some two weeks before the election, as the short campaign period began, PAM withdrew from the governing coalition, costing the government its parliamentary majority.

And then in another strange twist, the king stepped in and publicly voiced his support for the very minority government the PAM had just departed.

In a country where voters routinely voice disgust with politics, outsider status may be an asset. It may be one factor that helped PAM prevail over the other major opposition party, the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD).

The PJD became the second largest force in parliament after the '07 vote, but came in sixth in Friday's local elections, winning 5.5 percent of seats. They fielded fewer candidates, to be sure, but PJD representatives have also accused rivals of widespread vote-buying.

State media, on the other hand, claimed international observers had pronounced election conditions as “ideal.”

Regardless of the vote's outcome, regardless of its maddening complexity, observers I spoke were uniform in one aspect of their praise. Here in an Arab nation, we just witnessed competitive, democratic elections that touched off debates, rather than riots.