Voter turnout in the first legislative election since the king introduced constitutional reforms after the Arab Spring uprising was 45 percent, Interior Minister Taib Cherkaoui said Friday.
That compares to a turnout of 37 percent in the last election in 2007 but is lower than the 51.6 percent turnout recorded in 2002.
Voting stations opened at 8:00 am (0800 GMT) and closed at 7:00 pm (1900 GMT) with the first provisional official results not expected before midnight. Final results will be announced Saturday.
Moroccans voted Friday with an Islamist party expected to make strong gains, according to AFP.
The main contenders in the election, the second in north Africa since the Arab Spring began, are the moderately Islamist Justice and Development party and a handful of liberal, secular parties.
Opinion polls are not allowed in Morocco, but observers said Justice and Development could emerge with the most votes after similar success by a moderate Islamist party in Tunisia’s first democratic election last month.
Its main rivals are Prime Minister Abbas al-Fassi’s center-right Independence party and the Coalition for Democracy, an eight-party pro-monarchy bloc that includes two of the five governing parties.
The election comes less than five months after a July referendum overwhelmingly approved a new constitution proposed by King Mohammed VI as autocratic regimes toppled in nearby Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.
The amended constitution gives parliament a greater say in the legislative process and strengthens the role of the prime minister, who now must be appointed by the king from the party which wins the most seats in the assembly.
Low voter turnout
Morocco traditionally suffers from low voter turnout and this time around the pro-reform February 20 movement called for a boycott of the polls, arguing the monarch’s constitutional reforms do not go far enough.
“For the powers that be a strong turnout in the 2011 elections would give credibility to the constitutional reform adopted in July,” said Omar Bendourou, a constitutional law professor at Rabat’s Mohammed V University.
“And it would give them some credibility, a favorable image abroad of how the kingdom responded to protests.”
Throughout the day commercials broadcast on television urged Moroccans to “carry out their national duty” by voting while newscasts repeatedly explained how people could find out where their polling station is located.
State-run 2M television channel said some of the highest turnout rates on Friday were in the disputed Western Sahara.
Shoe shiner Mohammed said he may vote before polling stations close. “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 told Reuters as he crouched waiting for customers on a busy Rabat boulevard. “That’s all we have for now: patience and a vote.”
“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 Abdul Ilah Benkirane, leader of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD), as he voted in Rabat’s middle-class Les Orangers neighborhood.
His rival Salah Eddin 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 neighborhood.
Some voters still unconvinced
Despite the encouragement to head to polling stations, some eligible voters remained unconvinced.
“I don’t plan to vote. For me there is God, the nation and the king. And that's all,” said 45-year-old Mohammed who looks after parked cars in Morocco's seaside capital of Rabat.
The Independence party took the most votes in the 2007 election, winning 52 seats, followed closely by the Justice and Development Party with 47.
The Islamist party focused initially on social issues, such as opposition to summer music festivals and the sale of alcohol, but has shifted to issues with broader voter appeal like the fight against corruption and high unemployment.
“I am going to vote for Justice and Development Party. I want to see what they are capable of,” said 20-year-old Fatima, who covered her hair with a headscarf as she waited to cast her ballot at a polling station in the Casablanca slum of Sidi Moumen.
Morocco’s complex proportional representation system lends itself to fractured parliaments and no party is expected to obtain an absolute majority on its own so the winner will have to govern in a coalition.
In all, 31 parties are vying for the 395 seats in the lower house of parliament -- 70 more than during the last election.
Of the assembly's 395 members, 305 are elected from electoral lists put together by the parties in 92 constituencies.
The remaining 90 seats are elected from a so-called national list, with 60 seats reserved for women and the remaining 30 seats set aside for candidates under the age of 40.
Of the 13.5 million Moroccans eligible for voting, over half -- 57 percent -- are 35 or younger.