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Friday, 27 September, 2002, 22:13 GMT 23:13 UK
Morocco goes to the polls
Women voting
The authorities say election fraud is a thing of the past
Voting has ended in Morocco's first parliamentary elections since King Mohammed VI came to the throne in 1999.

King Mohammed VI of Morocco
The authorities fear the growing Islamist movement
A dizzying array of 26 parties have been standing, ranging from former Marxist revolutionaries to the one legal Islamist party.

The authorities promised a poll free of the corruption and interference of the past, but feared voter apathy in a country suffering high unemployment and growing poverty.

And there were indications that these fears were well-founded - by 1600 (1600 GMT) the turnout was just 30%, far lower than in 1997 elections which were themselves considered to be poorly attended.

However, officials said voting picked up later on in the day.

Polling was said to be generally calm, although some political parties reported isolated incidents of fraud and irregularities in remote areas.

The first results are expected early on Saturday.

Limited powers

The BBC's Stephanie Irvine in Rabat says the Moroccan Interior Ministry has been doing its best during a two-week electoral campaign to persuade voters that these elections mark a turning-point in Moroccan democracy.

Morocco's bicameral parliament:
Chamber of Counsellors: upper house
270 elected members
Term: six years

House of Representatives: lower house
325 elected members
Term: five years
Voting system: single ballot paper

In the past, elections were marred by vote-buying as well as interference from the Royal Palace.

The authorities say that has all changed - new laws and a new voting system have been brought in to combat fraud and the king has given his personal assurance he will not meddle.

Women, almost excluded from politics in the past, will be guaranteed 10% of parliamentary seats and probably the highest proportion of legislators in the Arab world.

People were seen dipping their thumbs into pads of indelible ink after voting as an anti-fraud measure.

Socialist voter Adnan Azzeddine told the Associated Press: "It's all above board, you can't cheat like in the past. Maybe this is the start of real change."

But although the vote may be relatively free - which is significant in itself - the parliament that is elected will have limited power.

The king appoints the most important ministers and the powerful local governors who, together with the king's entourage of advisers, make the key decisions in the country.

Soaring unemployment

And the makeup of the new parliament will not be radically different from the last, if opinion polls are to be believed.

A Moroccan woman washes her linen in front of empty electoral posters in Casablanca
One in five Moroccans live below the poverty line

They put the same two parties which dominated the outgoing coalition government, the Socialist USFP and the Istiqlal, in the lead.

One surprise might be how the Islamist party, the PJD, fare. Polls predict they will double their number of seats from 5% to 10%.

Whatever new government emerges, our correspondent says, it will have a lot of work on its hands.

Unemployment stands at around 20%. The majority of Moroccans can not read or write, and a recent survey found one in five live below the poverty line.

The BBC's Stephanie Irvine
"The king has promised there'll be no interference in the result"
See also:

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