(AFP) – Moroccans voted Friday in the first legislative election since the king introduced constitutional reforms after the Arab Spring uprisings, with an Islamist party expected to make strong gains. The main contenders in the poll, the second in north Africa since the Arab Spring began, are the moderately Islamist Justice and Development party and a handful of liberal, secular parties. Opinion polls are not allowed in Morocco, but observers said Justice and Development could emerge as the most popular party after similar success by a moderate Islamist party in Tunisia’s first democratic election last month.
Its main rivals are Prime Minister Abbas El Fassi’s centre-right Independence party and the Coalition for Democracy, an eight-party pro-monarchy bloc.
The bloc includes two of the five governing parties — the Popular Movement and Finance Minister Salaheddine Mezouar’s National Rally of Independents.
“I see Mezouar as the head of the next government because he has a dynamic and modern spirit and is after all an economist. Morocco needs concrete solutions to its problems and not populist speeches,” said Hasna Daoudi, who runs an Internet news site.
The election comes less than five months after a July referendum overwhelmingly approved a new constitution proposed by King Mohammed VI as autocratic regimes toppled in nearby Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.
The amended constitution gives parliament a greater role in the legislative process and strengthens the role of the prime minister, who now must be appointed by the king from the party which wins the most seats in the assembly.
However, the election risks being marred by traditionally low turnout as well as a boycott call by the pro-reform February 20 movement, which argues the monarch’s constitutional reforms do not go far enough.
Analysts blame voter indifference on a lack of faith on the part of many Moroccans that lawmakers will work to improve their living conditions.
“Many Moroccans do not have the sense that the platforms put forward by parties will change their daily lives,” said Haizam Amirah Fernandez, senior analyst for the Arab world at Spanish think tank Real Instituto Elcano.
“There is something that never fails. If a citizen sees that his vote can change his daily life, he votes. If he does not believe his vote can change his daily life, he does not vote.”
During the last legislative elections in 2007, only 37 percent of eligible voters took part — and of those 19 percent deposited blank ballots.
The Independence party took the most votes in that election, winning 52 seats, followed closely by the Justice and Development Party which took 47 seats.
The Islamist party focused initially on social issues, such as opposition to summer music festivals and the sale of alcohol, but has shifted to issues with broader voter appeal like the fight against corruption and high unemployment.
The party promises to cut poverty in half and raise the minimum wage by 50 percent.
“I am voting for Justice and Development because it is anti-corruption and it has a reputation for righteousness,” said Souad, a 43-year-old cook and mother of two who is married to a policeman.
Morocco’s complex proportional representation system lends itself to fractured parliaments and no party is expected to obtain an absolute majority on its own so the winner will have to govern in a coalition.
In all, 31 parties are vying for the 395 seats in the lower house of parliament — 70 more than during the last election.
Of the assembly’s 395 members, 305 are elected from electoral lists put together by the the parties in 92 constituencies.
The remaining 90 seats are elected from a so-called national list, with 60 seats reserved for women and the remaining 30 seats set aside for candidates under the age of 40.
Of the 13.5 million Moroccans eligible for voting, over half — 57 percent — are 35 or younger.
Voting stations opened at 8:00 am (0800 GMT) and will close at 7:00 pm (1900 GMT) with the first provisional official results not expected before midnight. Final results will be announced Saturday.