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POLITICS-MOROCCO: Quotas Overpowered by Machismo

Amina Barakat

RABAT, Sep 6 2007 (IPS) - When Morocco held legislative polls a decade ago, just two women were elected to the lower house of parliament in this North African country. Legal reforms enacted since have ensured that women will fare better when the latest parliamentary ballot gets underway Friday. But for activists, there is still a long way to go in bringing gender parity to the Chamber of Representatives.

In terms of a 2002 measure, women are assured of 30 places in the 325 seat chamber. These places are filled by candidates from national lists, and the remaining 295 posts by aspirants on local, constituency lists. Moroccan elections are held under a system of proportional representation, which allocates seats to parties according to the share of the vote that they win; legislative posts go to candidates with the highest ranking on party lists.

However, women appear to have made few inroads with local lists, observes Nadia Amrane, a young female voter who supports the Socialist Union of Popular Forces, part of the ruling coalition in the outgoing government.

The Democratic Society Party (Parti de la société démocratique, PSD), a women’s political grouping created recently, is not putting forward a national list – this to emphasise that women’s political participation should not be defined by quotas, the party says. “It’s a position of political principle,” noted Zhor Chekkafi, secretary general of the PSD, which is in the opposition.

In all, 33 parties are contesting the ballot. Just under 6,700 candidates – including several independents – are said to be vying for places in parliament.

“Political parties are in large part responsible for the absence of women on the local lists of candidacies,” Fatima Omari, an activist for the Progress and Socialism Party – also in the ruling coalition – told IPS.

This comes despite efforts to have parties ensure that women account for 30 percent of names on their lists, illustrating how strongly traditional perceptions of male and female roles hold sway in Morocco.

“I am for feminisation, but it’s really difficult to impose it in the presence of a dominant macho culture,” Rachid Rahoul, an official in the Ministry of Culture, noted in an interview with IPS.

In light of this, says Zahra el Harouch, a woman’s rights activist and candidate for the National Movement of Independents, there needs to be a different approach to promoting gender equality.

“The meetings that we organise to sensitise people to the potential of women, we must do this with men,” she notes. “They should know that…if they do not trust their women, it’s because they have a problem.”

The opposition Justice and Development Party (Parti pour la justice et le développement, PJD) – a moderate Islamist grouping, and apparently the party expected to perform best, Friday – has put forward 43 women candidates, 13.2 percent of its 325 aspirants.

“We greatly appreciate the female presence in our ranks. Contrary to what our competitors think, we encourage women to contest elections to defend our principles,” Hadj Omar, a PJD activist, told IPS.

Under-representation of women on party lists is just one of the problems confronting the latest parliamentary ballot, however.

Reports indicate that there is also widespread apathy towards the polls, stemming from the view that the considerable powers of King Mohammed the Sixth make parliament largely irrelevant.

“The absence of a parliamentary tradition in Morocco, as well as the long-standing concentration of powers with the executive, has weakened the authority of political parties…The population’s trust in political parties is low,” says a Jan. 24 briefing from Democracy Reporting International, a Berlin-based non-profit that lobbies for democracy and citizens’ participation in political affairs.

In addition, the reputation of legislators can be less than pristine.

Noted Khadija Akelay, a doctor based in the capital of Rabat: “The elections? I don’t believe in them any longer, because all the deputies become invisible after the result of elections (is made known), and their sweet promises disappear.”

She also holds out little hope that women legislators could break this pattern. “I do not believe they will do better,” Akelay told IPS.

Amal Nadif, a pharmacist in Rabat, was not as pessimistic. “I don’t believe it’s bad to give a chance to these women, who seem convinced of their ability and their savoir faire in politics.”

“If you speak of democracy, you must encourage them and leave them to see what comes of it.”

Almost 11 percent of seats in the outgoing lower house of parliament – 35 posts – were held by women.

Some 15.5 million voters are registered to vote Friday, 48 percent of them women, according to official figures.

Polls for the Chamber of Representatives are held every five years in Morocco.

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