Morocco socialists broaden base ahead of polls

RABAT (Reuters) — Morocco’s once secretive socialists have launched a mass membership drive to boost their chances at polls next year in which their message of secular modernity faces a challenge from resurgent Islamists.

Business leaders and urban elites hope the socialists can block a bid for power by an Islamist movement they see as a hurdle to the north African kingdom’s development towards liberal democracy after decades of repressive rule.

“We need the mobilisation of the people to build a modern state,” Mohammad Al Yazghi, head of the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP), said in a recent Reuters interview. Asked if he saw Islamists as his main rival, he replied: “I do not want to name a party but our adversaries are anti-democratic forces. We want our people to build a better future and be proud of their history and past,” he said. “We do not accept that our future resembles our past,” he added, an indirect reference to Islamist groups whom socialists accuse of wanting to reduce individual rights, including women’s liberties and social freedoms. Islamists deny the charge. The moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party, widely seen as the USFP’s main poll rival, says it wants to fight graft and poverty rather than push a religious fundamentalist agenda. The elections may prove a watershed for Morocco, where the rise of Islamist sentiment and continuing widespread poverty has raised concerns about instability in a country whose ruling pro-business elite would prefer a future of secular modernity.

The USFP, the main group in the 325-member parliament, loosened recruitment rules this month to attract more youths and women into its ranks, long dominated by a core of faithful.

“Morocco is changing. We are in transition to democracy,” Yazghi said. The USFP has called on would-be members to send their applications by fax and e-mail or to phone party headquarters for recruitment interviews.

More openness is a big change for the USFP, a champion of human rights during the tough rule of former King Hassan, and its skill at recruiting may determine its electoral performance.

The party won widespread respect for pushing for democracy during an era of repression from the 1960s and 1990s when activists and others-most of them socialists-were tortured, killed or forced underground or into exile. To survive it used iron discipline and discretion, habits it says it must now partly unlearn in order to build a mass base. Analysts and politicians say mass voter turnout will benefit anti-Islamist forces. But analysts say the socialists risk a voter backlash for being a main player in a coalition government since 1998. Critics say the government has failed to cure serious problems such as mass poverty and unemployment. The government said it is proud of its social and economic record, including expected 7.2 per cent growth this year.

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