RABAT, Morocco – The leader of an Islamist party that has never before participated in Morocco's governments was chosen by the king as the country's new head of government on Tuesday.
The Justice and Development Party won the most votes Friday in a national election made possible by the pro-democracy demonstrations that swept this North African kingdom of 32 million earlier this year as part of the regionwide Arab Spring.
King Mohammed VI received Abdelilah Benkirane, the secretary general of the Justice and Development Party, in the mountain town of Midelt on Tuesday and named him head of government with the task of forming a new government.
A member of the opposition PJD leading the government would have been unthinkable just a year ago, but the Arab Spring movement led the king to reform Morocco's constitution.
Under it, he must choose a head of government from the party that won the most votes in the election and the PJD took 107 seats out of the 395 in Parliament, almost twice as many as the second-place finisher.
The constitution also gives the prime minister more powers to govern.
With the fall or weakening of Western-backed secular dictatorships, people across North Africa have been turning to Islamist parties that have been in the opposition as an alternative.
The PJD's victory follows that of Tunisia's Islamist Ennahda Party in an election there last month. And voters in Egypt are currently turning out in droves for an election there that is expected to boost Islamist parties.
Benkirane, who was elected head of his party in 2008, leads its more conciliatory pro-monarchy faction and has repeatedly stated his support for a strong king, even while his colleagues would prefer a less powerful ruler.
"The head of the state is king and no can govern without him. If someone can do it, it is certainly not Abdalilah Benkirane," he told cheering supporters Sunday after election results showed his party's strong finish.
Only 6 million people out of a potential electorate of 21 million voted in Friday's election and many boycotted out of disgust or apathy with what is perceived as a corrupt political system.
Bringing in an opposition party to run the government has been used before by the monarchy as a way of restoring its legitimacy.
"The PJD is aware that the political situation in Morocco is very tense," said Benkirane on Sunday. "I promise a strong government that will give hope to Moroccans."