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Wednesday December 8th, 2021 2:06PM

Parties campaign ahead of Morocco's pivotal elections

By The Associated Press
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RABAT, Morocco (AP) — Politicians from dozens of political parties were campaigning for a final day Tuesday, trying to reach out to millions of Moroccans despite social distancing measures a day before pivotal legislative, regional and local elections, with a moderate Islamist party hoping to remain at the helm of government.

Strict safety guidelines in place as the North African kingdom grapples with a new wave of COVID-19 have restricted campaigning, and candidates’ ability to reach the 18 million eligible voters, half the country’s population.

On Wednesday, voters will choose among candidates from 31 political parties and coalitions that are competing for the 395 seats in the lower house of parliament. They will also be selecting representatives for 678 seats in regional councils.

Candidates have had to comply with preventive measures during campaigning, which began Aug. 27 and ends at midnight Tuesday. Among restrictions are a ban on distribution of leaflets and a limit of a maximum of 25 people at political gatherings. Morocco has registered more than 13,000 COVID-19-related deaths since the start of the pandemic, according to figures from the Moroccan Health Ministry.

Job creation, boosting Morocco’s economy, education and health rank at the top of parliamentary contenders’ campaign agendas. However, the role of lawmakers is limited by the powers of King Mohamed VI, who oversees strategic decision-making.

The moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party, at the helm of the government since 2011, is seeking a third term. With Prime Minister Saad-Eddine El Othmani, the party has campaigned on raising the competitiveness of Morocco’s economy, increasing the budget for the health sector by 6% annually and wants the country’s education budget upped by 5%.

Nizar Baraka, secretary general of the conservative Istiqlal (Independence), another major party in the running, said his team has strengthened its social media presence to compensate for limits on campaigning.

“Today, the situation of citizens is difficult because of the pandemic and so voters have expressed many expectations to alleviate their hardships,” Baraka said. “There is a will for change, and the Independence Party is the alternative in this context.”

As voting day approached, competition intensified between the major four parties, which also include the center-left Party of Authenticity and Modernity, or PAM, and the liberal National Rally of Independents.

The Justice and Development Party, or the PJD, faces a major hurdle following the adoption in March of a new voting law that will make it hard for any one party to secure a large number of seats in the House of Representatives. The reform introduced multiple changes to how parliamentary seats are granted, now based on the number of registered voters rather than the number of those who cast a ballot. Some analysts contend the new method of allocating seats could further fracture the diverse Moroccan political landscape, and the lower house.

For many citizens, hopes are oversized. They want the elections to produce an up-close personal impact once a new government takes office.

Reda Azzouzi, who has owned a gym in Rabat for three years and seen it closed twice because of the coronavirus, wants compensation.

“Everyone knows the expenses we have to pay," he said in a interview. "We have received nothing in financial compensation from the state or from anyone.”

Azzouzi said that after the elections, “we hope .. they reopen our gym as soon as possible.”

In Temara, less than 15 kilometers (10 miles) south of Rabat, 35-year-old Ali Amedghouss, who is unemployed, said that migration becomes an attractive alternative for despairing youth in a country with soaring unemployment and, for some, grinding poverty. Morocco has seen thousands of youth make risky, often deadly, trips in small boats to Spain’s Canary Islands or reach Spain via the Strait of Gibraltar.

“These young people who have lost hope ... most of them expect a better Morocco after these elections,” he said.

A Moroccan political analyst in Rabat, Mustafa Yassine, echoed those thoughts.

“The Moroccan people, and the youth in particular, are betting on these elections to open new horizons,” he said.

The outcome of the voting is difficult to predict, with electoral polls banned for a second time since 2016. The only certainty is that the parliamentary race will likely be close, and whoever wins will likely need to cobble together a coalition with other parties to form a new government.

The elections Wednesday will be monitored by 4,600 local observers and 100 more from abroad.

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