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Moroccans Head for the Polls

November 14, 1997

RABAT, Morocco (AP) _ Despite widespread apathy and opposition charges of vote-buying and fraud, Moroccans voted Friday for a new legislature their king says will enhance democracy in this North African nation.

But many Moroccans, suspicious of elections after years of irregularities and unconvinced a retooled parliament can reduce chronically high unemployment, said they weren’t planning to vote at all.

``No one has convinced me they can do anything,″ said Ghali, 25, who can’t find a job despite an advanced degree in literature. University graduates are not alone: The government says joblessness stands at 18 percent. Unofficial estimates put it at nearly 30 percent.

Turnout was reported at 45.6 percent a few hours before polls were to close. Interior Minister Driss Basri said he was confident the final turnout would be at least 65 percent.

Results were not expected until Saturday morning. About half of the people in this country of 26 million are eligible voters.

Western countries have long viewed Morocco as an island of stability in a politically turbulent region, and have quietly pressed for King Hassan II to improve human rights and take steps toward a more open political system.

For the first time, the chamber will be directly elected in full. In the past, two-thirds of legislators were directly elected. Also for the first time, a moderate Islamic fundamentalist group is in the running _ albeit in union with a secular party.

Some Moroccans say the reforms are cosmetic. For example, the new legislative chamber can be overridden by a second chamber, to be elected indirectly next month by business and local leaders. And the king can dissolve either house.

Despite widespread apathy, some voters were pleased.

``The king is sincere about democracy,″ commented Mohammed Salmi, 60, after voting for an opposition candidate at the Abdelmouman primary school in Rabat, the capital.

On Rabat’s Abdelmouman Street, a stream of voters lined up at the school during a late-morning rainstorm. Five representatives of various parties watched voters take a sheath of ballots _ each a different color, representing a different candidate _ and go into voting booths.

They put their ballots in brown envelopes and dropped them in a transparent, locked box outside the voting booths.

Other voters said they thought the balloting was fair _ but confusing with 16 different parties.

``There are too many candidates,″ said Hayat Manali, 23. ``No one knows too much about them.″

But opposition leaders complained of irregularities.

``Vote-buying is happening today in districts throughout the country,″ said party spokesman Hafid Boutaleb. Similar allegations were made during municipal elections in June.

He also claimed voter lists prepared earlier this year contained an estimated 800,000 fictitious names.

That has played into the hands of the one group many people are 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. It has strong support among students and the poor.

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