Morocco’s moderate Islamists won the most seats in a landmark parliamentary election, the government said on Saturday, the latest religious party to achieve spectacular gains on the back of the Arab Spring.
The Justice and Development Party, PJD, captured 80 seats in the 395-seat assembly, nearly double the 45 seats won by Prime Minister Abbas el Fassi’s Indpendence Party, Interior Minister Taib Cherkaoui told a news conference.
The win — the first parliamentary poll victory for the party — comes just one month after Islamists won Tunisia’s post-revolution election and days before their predicted surge in Egyptian polls.
According to the new constitution overwhelmingly approved in a July referendum, King Mohammed VI must now pick the prime minister from the party which won the most seats in parliament, instead of naming whomever he pleases.
The king, the latest scion of a monarchy that has ruled the country for 350 years, proposed changes to the constitution that curb some of his near absolute powers as autocratic regimes toppled in nearby Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.
Earlier on Saturday top PJD officials said their own figures showed they had won over 100 seats in Friday’s polls, the first since the approval of the new constitution.
“We thank the Moroccans who voted for the PJD and we can only be satisfied,” PJD secretary general Abdelilah Benkirane told reporters after the government confirmed his party had won the most seats in the election.
He acknowledged his party would have to tailor its programme to appease prospective coalition partners and said the PJD was “open to everyone” when it comes to forming alliances.
“The nub of our programme and of those who will govern with us will have a double axis, democracy and good governance,” he told the France 24 television channel.
“From now on, Moroccans will feel that the state is at their service and not the other way about,” Benkirane added. “That is very important for us.”
The PJD has gradually increased its share of the vote in Morocco, seen as one of the most stable countries in the region.
After winning just eight seats in 1997, it surged in popularity, scooping 42 seats in the 2002 election, the first of King Mohammed VI’s reign.
It then increased its share in the last election in 2007 when it finished second with 47 seats.
The party focused at first 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.
During the current campaign it promised to cut poverty in half and raise the minimum wage by 50 percent.
Unlike the banned Islamist opposition group Justice and Charity, the Justice and Development Party pledges its allegiance to the monarchy.
But Benkirane cuts a controversial figure for previously derogatory comments about Berber people and homosexuals.
In 2010 he tried to ban a concert in Morocco by the openly gay singer Elton John because of fears of encouraging homosexuality.
The National Rally of Independents, the second-largest party in the outgoing five-party government coalition, won 38 seats, while the Party of Authenticity and Modernity, founded in 2008 by people close to the king, got 33 seats.
So far only the Independence Party has said it would be willing to govern with the Justice and Development Party.
The king proposed a new constitution on March 9, just 17 days after thousands of people took to the streets across Morocco calling on him to give up some of his powers in the biggest anti-establishment protests in the country in decades.
Morocco’s pro-reform February 20 protest movement, responsible for the protests, had called on voters to boycott the elections. It says the constitutional reforms are insufficient.
Voter turnout was 45.4 percent, up from 37 percent from the last parliamentary election in 2007, but lower than the 51.6 percent turnout recorded in 2002.
“This turnout, if confirmed, does not reflect enthusiasm for the new constitution or political parties,” said Haizam Amirah Fernandez, senior analyst for the Arab world at Spanish think tank Real Instituto Elcano.
In all, 31 parties competed for the 395 seats in the lower house of parliament — with 60 seats reserved for women and 30 set aside for candidates under the age of 40.