Moroccans voted in a parliamentary election on Friday that could yield their most representative government ever, after King Mohammed ceded some powers to prevent any tumultuous spillover of Arab Spring uprisings.
The election will be a litmus test of the ability of Arab monarchies to craft reforms that would placate popular yearning for greater democracy without violence-ridden revolts of the sort seen in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Syria this year.
Some 13.6 million Moroccans registered to vote in the North African country's ninth election since independence from France in 1956. The voter turnout stood at 34 percent by 5 p.m. British time, nine hours after the vote began, the Interior Ministry said.
Voter turnout at the previous polls in 2007 stood at a record low 37 percent of 15.5 million voters registered then by the Interior Ministry. The ministry has not explained the drop in the number of registered voters between 2007 and 2011.
State-run 2M television channel said some of the highest turnout rates on Friday were in the disputed Western Sahara.
Shoe shiner Mohamed said he may vote before polling stations close at 7 p.m. British time. Last night a friend explained to me what elections are all about with all the troubles in Arab countries: I have to vote so that we can end the misery we live in, he said as he crouched waiting for customers on a busy Rabat boulevard. That's all we have for now: patience and a vote.
In contrast to previous elections, Friday's vote is a closely-run contest between a moderate Islamist party and a new coalition of liberals with close ties to the royal palace.
We don't know what to expect. We hope voter turnout will exceed 50 percent and that today we will mark a victory of democracy, said Abdelilah Benkirane, leader of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD), as he voted in Rabat's middle-class Les Orangers neighbourhood.
His rival Salaheddine Mezouar, leading the liberal Alliance for Democracy coalition, also could not make any predictions.
The feedback is positive so far ... People are going to the polling stations ... I'm confident Moroccans are well aware of the particular meaning of the current context, he told Reuters after he voted in the upper-class Souissi neighbourhood.
Under constitutional reforms backed by King Mohammed earlier this year, the new government that will emerge from the election will have unprecedented powers, though the king retains the final say on the economy, security and religion.
CONCERN ABOUT VIABILITY OF NEXT GOV'T
The king will pick the next prime minister from the party that wins the biggest number of seats. But whichever bloc comes first is unlikely to be able to form a government on its own, which makes alliances inevitable.
That worries economists, who want to see a cohesive government able to narrow a growing budget deficit, cut the 30-percent-plus youth unemployment rate and address the needs of the 8.5 million destitute Moroccans.
The shift towards greater democracy could falter if the polls are marred by vote-buying which was common in the past, or if signs crop up afterwards that palace officials are trying to meddle in the new government.
King Mohammed has said he wants free, fair and competitive elections. But there are already signs the murky electoral practices of the past are still in play.
The official National Council of Human Rights urged the Interior Ministry to facilitate the transportation of voters to polling stations, especially in remote areas.
PJD's Benkirane said the move opens the door for intervention by some officials to steer voters towards supporting some candidates ... especially in rural areas. Voter turnout is usually stronger in the countryside than in cities.
Morocco ranks 130th on the United Nations' latest Human Development Index, due mostly to high illiteracy rate and poor education and healthcare especially in rural areas.
Since his enthronement in 1999, King Mohammed has won international praise mostly for his effort to repair a dark legacy of human right abuses under the 38-year rule of his late father King Hassan. The reform drive of his earlier years in power has lost momentum in the last few years.
When demonstrations inspired by the Arab Spring flared in February, he revived the reform process with constitutional amendments that took much momentum out of the protest movement.
But there remains a vocal minority who say his reforms are not enough. Thousands of people joined protests in several cities last weekend to back calls for a boycott of the election.
The bigger concern for the palace is not the boycott but that apathy among ordinary Moroccans will produce a low turnout, taking the shine off what is being portrayed as a showcase for budding democracy.
(Editing by Jon Hemming)