Officials count ballots after polls have been closed at a polling station in Rabat, Morocco, on October 7, 2016.
Officials count ballots after polls have been closed at a polling station in Rabat, Morocco, on October 7, 2016.

RABAT, MOROCCO - Preliminary results in Morocco’s national elections showed the moderate Islamist Party of Justice and Development in the lead, despite frustration with its handling of the economy in its five years leading the government and a challenge from a party close to the royal palace.

With most of the votes counted, the Interior Ministry said early Saturday that the PJD had won 99 seats in the Chamber of Representatives in Friday’s legislative elections. Its closest rival, the Party of Authenticity of Modernity, won 80 seats, followed by several other parties.

Of 395 seats in the chamber, 303 had been decided by early Saturday. The vote was still being tallied for two seats, and the 90 other seats are reserved for women and youth who will be chosen proportionally from the lists of the winning parties. Final results are expected later Saturday.

The results suggest no single party will have a majority, meaning the winner will likely have to form a coalition government.

Abdelilah Benkirane, secretary-general of Morocco
Abdelilah Benkirane, secretary-general of Morocco's Islamist Justice and Development Party, speaks during a new conference at the party's headquarters in Rabat, Morocco, early October 8, 2016.

An unusually venomous campaign marked by adultery scandals and an alleged extremist attack planned for election day preceded the balloting in this North African nation, which is seen as a model of stability and relative prosperity in the region.

Worries about youth joblessness, high debt and Islamic extremism were on many voters' minds as they cast their ballots. Turnout was slightly lower than in the past national elections in 2011, at 43 percent.

Reports and videos surfaced online about alleged voting violations, including ballot stuffing, votes casts under the names of dead people, and authorities blocking a road to a voting site. The Interior Ministry issued statements denying most of the claimed irregularities, but said it was investigating others. Some 4,000 Moroccan and international observers were monitoring the elections.

The palace pledged to loosen control over Moroccan politics after Arab Spring protests five years ago, but still retains control over major policy decisions, prompting many Moroccans to ignore the elections Friday.

Abdul-Wahab Kayyali, a doctoral candidate in political science at George Washington University, said “these elections, specifically, matter a lot ... and will show whether 2011 was just a blip on the radar screen” in gauging Morocco’s path toward reform.

The 2011 Arab Spring uprisings have left a mixed legacy in North Africa: Tunisia built a fragile democracy, Egypt elected Islamists who were then ousted by the military and Libya has descended into deadly chaos.