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MOROCCO: Polls Largely Maintain the Status Quo for Women in Parliament

Amina Barakat

RABAT, Sep 23 2007 (IPS) - This month’s parliamentary elections in Morocco have seen the number of women legislators decline from 35 to 34 in the 325 member body. With 30 of the female representatives elected under a quota, the results would seem to indicate that women face challenges in making their presence felt in the lower house – even though a proportional representation system is used for polls.

The 30 women’s seats are filled by aspirants from national lists. Separate, local lists comprising men and women are used to fill the other 295 posts, with candidates allocated seats according to their parties’ share of the vote (the system also allows independents to run).

The proportional representation system is generally held to be more favourable to women’s political representation than the constituency system of elections, for various reasons. Often, tackling discrimination against women is more easily done in political parties than at constituency level.

But Mohamed Regragui – a political journalist with the weekly Al Ayam paper – believes the difficulty in increasing women’s representation in this North African country lies with political parties, and the fact that women are still in a minority in decision making bodies of these groups. Many Moroccans hold traditional views about the status of women.

On a more optimistic note, the number of women running for office this year increased from 266 (the figure for the 2002 elections) to 299. In all, about 6,700 candidates contested the Sep. 7 poll – while 33 political parties were in action.

One of the four women who were voted into the Chamber of Representatives on a local list, Latifa Jbabdi, puts a positive spin on the outcome of the ballot.

“Although it is still weak, the number of women elected can make up a force. What counts are the speeches, the quality of initiatives in parliament, and the ability to convince,” she told IPS.

Jbabdi represents the Socialist Union of Popular Forces. The former political detainee is also a member of the party’s executive committee, and well-known for her support of women’s causes in Morocco.

Moustafa Zaari, a columnist for the Assabah Arabic daily, voices similar sentiments: “What characterises this new wave of elected women is the quality of the representatives themselves. They are young, educated, high-level officials of the administration – and academics. This gives them the ability to debate. It’s a gain for the country.”

In addition to Jbabdi, Yasmina Badou of the Istiqlal (Independence) Party was elected under the local lists, along with Fatna Khiel of the Popular Movement, and Fatiha Lyadi, an independent.

Badou was secretary of state in charge of the family, solidarity and social action in the previous government, while Lyadi served as director of information in the Ministry of Communication.

The 30 special seats for women were shared between the Justice and Development Party (seven seats), Istiqlal (six seats), the Popular Movement (five seats), the National Movement of Independents (five seats), the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (four seats) and the Party of Progress and Socialism (three seats).

The conservative-leaning Istiqlal, part of the ruling coalition in the previous government, won the highest number of seats in the polls – 52. It was followed by the Justice and Development Party (Parti pour la justice et le developpement, PJD), a moderate Islamic grouping that had been expected to take the lead. The PJD emerged with 46 seats.

The overall number of seats in female hands could have been greater if the Constitutional Union (Union constitutionnelle, UC) had been in the race, as this grouping had more than ten women in its executive committee who may have been well positioned on the party’s local list. However, a party dispute resulted in the annulment of the UC list by the Ministry of the Interior.

For Fatima Bekkari of the National Democratic Party, “the campaign was a…rich experience in terms of having contact with the public. Even if this (the campaign) did not result in anything I see a rosy future, and I hope that my daughter will be able to gather the fruits of our fight.”

With the legislature appointed, women politicians must now turn their attention to getting positions in the cabinet. The former government had only three women in a cabinet of about 30.

Last week, King Mohamed the Sixth named Istiqlal leader Abbas el Fassi as Morocco’s new prime minister. The monarch has extensive authority in the country, of which he is also the military and religious leader.

El Fassi is taking over a country struggling with poverty and illiteracy – 14.3 percent of people here live on less than two dollars a day, according to the 2006 United Nations Human Development Report – and at risk of Islamic terrorism.

Earlier this year, seven suicide bombers staged attacks in Morocco’s financial capital, Casablanca; in addition, the Al Qaeda terrorist network announced it was targeting North Africa for attacks. Morocco is considered an ally of the United States in the region.

El Fassi is furthermore beginning his term in office amidst public gloom about the effectiveness of government.

As IPS reported earlier, many Moroccans view their legislators with scepticsm (see ‘POLITICS-MOROCCO: Quotas Overpowered by Machismo’).

This was reflected in voter apathy during the recent polls: just 37 percent of the approximately 15 million people who were registered to vote did so – a record low.

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