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Moroccans Vote for New Legislature

November 14, 1997

RABAT, Morocco (AP) _ Moroccans voted today to fill a newly designed legislature aimed at introducing more democracy to this North African nation, but opposition groups complained of early irregularities.

The government had promised a free and fair vote, saying the ballot would showcase its commitment to an open and inclusive system.

``You will see, democracy is at its highest level in Morocco today,″ said Driss Basri, the country’s powerful interior minister.

Turnout was reported at 20 percent before noon. Basri said he was confident the final turnout would be at least 65 percent, as in previous elections.

But Hafid Boutaleb, a member of one of the top opposition parties, said voter lists prepared earlier this year included the names of 800,000 people who are either dead or don’t exist. About half of the country’s 26 million people are eligible to vote.

Boutaleb’s party, the Socialist Union of Popular Forces, is part of an opposition bloc expected to win a narrow majority in the new House of Representatives.

For the first time, the chamber will be directly elected in full, one of several reforms designed by King Hassan II to create a more pluralistic system. Previously only two-thirds of legislators were directly elected.

Results were not expected until Saturday morning.

The reforms come amid deep frustration over chronically high unemployment. Morocco’s joblessness stands officially at 18 percent, but is unofficially estimated at close to 30 percent. Many of the unemployed are young university graduates.

``I won’t vote. Nobody has convinced me they can do anything,″ said Ghali, 25, who can’t find a job despite an advanced degree in literature.

Like many Moroccans interviewed, he wouldn’t give his last name, citing the heavy police presence in the country.

But other voters saw signs of progress in the election.

On Rabat’s Abdelmouman Street, a stream of people lined up during a late morning rainstorm to vote in a primary school. Five representatives of various parties observed as voters took a sheath of ballots _ each a different color, representing a different candidate _ and went into a polling booth.

``This is a much better system,″ said Mohammed Salmi, 60, after voting for an opposition candidate. ``It seems a lot more fair. The king is sincere about democracy.″

Hassan, eager to improve his country’s image abroad, has said he’s determined to have the recognized as just. The 16 legal parts taking part in the ballot have agreed to respect the results.

For the first time, a moderate Islamic fundamentalist group is in the running _ albeit in union with a secular party.

But there has been a notable sense of apathy, partially attributable to the general lack of faith in the fairness of the elections after years of vote-buying and other irregularities.

Some Moroccans also accuse the opposition of election fraud.

That has played into the hands of the one group everyone is afraid of: the Islamic hard-liners.

The largest and most militant Muslim group, Justice and Spirituality, is banned under a law that forbids parties formed on the basis of religion. Yet it has strong support among students and the poor.

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