Moroccans elect new leaders in shadow of virus

A man is surrounded by leaflets, following the passage of the supporters of a candidate during an electoral campaign in the place of Sraghna in the El Fida district in Casablanca, Monday Sept 6, 2021. The Election campaigns are often synonymous with the tossing of thousands of leaflets representing the symbol of the parties as well as the heads of candidate lists for electoral districts. Voting booths open on Sept. 8 for the North African kingdom’s parliamentary elections, in which 395 seats in the upper house of Parliament are up for grabs. Communal and regional elections take place on the same day. (AP Photo/Abdeljalil Bounhar)

RABAT, Morocco (AP) — Moroccans are choosing a new parliament and new local leaders Wednesday in elections reshaped by the pandemic.

Candidates are promising to create jobs and boost Morocco’s economy, education and health care. The kingdom has been hit hard by the pandemic, but has Africa’s highest vaccination rate so far.

Despite a dip in popularity in recent years, the governing Islamist party is eyeing a third term at the helm of the government if it again wins the most parliament seats. But a recent election reform could limits its powers, and the role of lawmakers is limited by the powers of King Mohamed VI, who oversees strategic decision-making.

The outcome of Wednesday’s voting is difficult to predict since opinion polls on elections are banned. The race will likely be close and no matter which party wins the most seats, it will likely need to cobble together a coalition with other parties to form the government.

Many voters hope the election produces solutions to local problems, from jobs to virus restrictions.

While Morocco has one of the region’s strongest economies and a thriving business district in Casablanca, poverty and unemployment are also widespread, especially in rural regions. Morocco has seen thousands of despairing youth make risky, often deadly, trips in small boats to Spain’s Canary Islands or reach the Spanish mainland via the Strait of Gibraltar.

Strict safety guidelines in place as the kingdom grapples with a new surge of COVID-19 cases have restricted campaigning, and candidates’ ability to reach the 18 million eligible voters. So they stepped up efforts on social media instead.

Voters are choosing 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 weren’t allowed to distribute leaflets and had to limit campaign gatherings to a maximum of 25 people. 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.

The moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD), 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.

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

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