A Muslim Nation's Successful Election

By Rachel Ehrenfeld

In contrast to Iran, Morocco's recent vote marks a new degree of order, unity and tolerance. It is 131 degrees Fahrenheit in Marrakesh, Morocco, yet a slow but steady stream of voters--many of whom are women--enter the schoolyard to cast their ballots at the polling stations for the municipal elections. On June 12, 2009, 1,503 communities chose their representatives in orderly, transparent elections, according to Ahmed Herzenni, chairman of Morocco's human rights watchdog, CCDH.

His opinion was shared by more than 150 foreign observers, including the International Strategic Studies Association from Washington, D.C., and the New York-based American Center for Democracy (ACD). Unlike the Soviet-style election in April that led to the reelection of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algeria, Morocco's eastern neighbor, or the controversial and violent presidential election in Iran, Morocco's election was "fair and free." The meticulously planned and executed election marked an important step in King Mohammed VI's reform plans to decentralize governance and empower local communities.

With 6% economic growth, large investment in education and development, $21.11 billion in foreign debt and $27.29 billion in reserve, Morocco has weathered the global economic storm better than most. In introducing a new form of governance, the king's reforms are designed to increase the participation of all citizens in political and economic systems. Morocco's interior minister, Chakib Benmoussa, an MIT graduate, led the planning, preparing and training of election officials and volunteers. A budget of close to $62 million was allocated to plan, organize and administer the elections.

Special efforts were made to include more women in local politics. To overcome the high level of illiteracy and encourage voting, the ballots included pictures of the political parties, which were well advertised in advance. These efforts yielded impressive results: Local elections attracted 15.4% more voters than the last parliamentary elections, in 2007. More than 7 million voters (52.4%) elected 27,795 council members; 61% of these were newly elected. The number of women elected rose significantly, from 0.4% in the previous local elections in 2003 to 12.3%. Most of these women are under the age of 35, and 75% of them have higher than secondary education. "We were impressed because we've seen very clearly that people were well-acquainted with the rules and were well-prepared for elections," noted Leslie Lebl, a senior ACD fellow, one of the international observers. "Everything took place in very good conditions." Jean-Charles Brisard, a French observer, noted the "professionalism" of the election supervising teams and said he was impressed by the "great sense of responsibility" demonstrated by participating officials and volunteers. Significantly, there was a high turnout of voters in the Moroccan Western Sahara region. Though this area is still the subject of international dispute, the local inhabitants' active participation demonstrated their self-identification as Moroccan citizens.

The Saharans clearly prefer Morocco's reform-oriented government to Algeria's repressive regime. Morocco's efforts to unify its diverse population of Arabs, Berbers, Jews and other small minorities are impressive. To attract more members, the Islamist Justice and Development party abended its religious rhetoric. Although it gained relatively more votes in the big cities, it came in sixth, with only 5% of the votes. In contrast, the royalist, modernist, and reform-oriented Authenticity and Modernity Party came in first with roughly 18% of the votes and won almost 22% of seats. In this Muslim country--where Jews and Christians can practice their religions freely, conversion from Islam is permitted by law, a big church stands in the center of the capital Rabat, and alcohol is freely sold in the supermarkets--the regionalization reforms underway promise that Morocco will become even more tolerant. Indeed, Morocco should be used as model by its neighbors in the region and beyond.

Rachel Ehrenfeld, author of Funding Evil: How Terrorism is Financed and How to Stop It, is director of the American Center for Democracy.

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