RABAT, Morocco — It should be a moment of excitement: Moroccans are choosing a parliament in elections Friday prompted by the Arab Spring's clamor for freedom.
Yet there are few signs here that elections are even taking place.
Posters and raucous rallies for candidates are absent in the cities and instead there are just stark official banners urging citizens to "do their national duty" and "participate in the change the country is undergoing."
"The parties have presented the same people for the past 30 years, the least they could do is change their candidates," said Hassan Rafiq, a vegetable vendor in the capital Rabat, who said he didn't plan to vote.
Like elsewhere in the Arab world, Moroccans hit the streets in the first half of 2011 calling for more democracy, and King Mohammed VI responded by amending the constitution and bringing forward elections.
But since then the sense of change has dissipated.
The real challenge for these polls, in which an opposition Islamist party and a pro-palace coalition are expected to do well, will be if many people come out to vote in the face of a strident boycott campaign by democracy campaigners.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said that since Oct. 20 government has taken more than 100 activist in for questioning for advocating a boycott.
"Summoning scores of boycott activists in cities around the country to police stations for questioning amounts to a state policy of harassment," said Sarah Leah Whitson, the group's Mideast director in a statement Wednesday.
It's a sharp contrast to the electric atmosphere that characterized Tunisia's first free elections just last month.
"Moroccans feel that aside from the constitutional reform, nothing has really changed, meaning that the elections of 2011 will be a copy of the elections 2007 and that is what will probably keep the participation low," said Abdellah Baha, deputy secretary general of the Islamist Justice and Development Party.
The 2007 elections, the first with widespread international observation, had just 37 percent turnout, and some fear it could be even lower this time around.
A close U.S. ally and popular destination for European sunseekers, Morocco with its many political parties and regular elections was once the bright star in a region of dictatorships.
But all that has changed with the Arab uprisings that toppled dictators in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Now a political system that holds elections but leaves all powers in the hands of a hereditary king does not look so liberal.
"Morocco can no longer say it is the only one with pluralism or that it has the 'most,' (pluralistic)," said Jeffrey England, of the National Democratic Institute, a U.S.-based organization dedicated to furthering democracy.
Yet the Arab Spring has not left the country untouched, and Moroccans today do expect greater freedoms and reform. "Even if the system structure hasn't changed much, it has certainly changed the population's perceptions and expectations," said England, the institute's resident director in Morocco.
But even people who voted in July's referendum for a new constitution may not come out come out to vote in this week's elections because of widespread suspicions the referendum results were skewed, said Mounia Bennani-Chraibi, a Morocco expert at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland.
The constitutional referendum passed with over 98 percent voting in favor, and a staggering 72 percent turnout, which most observers found hardly credible.
"There are people who have voted 'yes' for constitution and were then humiliated by the results, they regretted it and felt it was the same methods as before, and nothing has really changed," she said.
One new reform in these elections is that 90 seats have been added to the parliament, with 60 reserved for women, and another 30 for candidates under 40 years old.
But there's a pervasive sense that the murky electoral machine has been preserved intact.
The law organizing the parliamentary elections was passed in October with little discussion in wider society and preserves a complex system with disproportionate districts that favor rural voters and leaves a splintered parliament.
Larger parties often receive less seats than their proportion of the popular vote.
Traditionally, that has allowed the palace to pick one party to weld together a coalition of many small parties – which then does the palace's bidding regardless of its ideological stripe.
Under the new constitution, the largest party must form the government, which could well be the Islamist party, known by its French initials PJD. But there's uncertainty over whether it can truly change anything.
Foreign Minister Taieb Fassi-Fihri dismissed any threat deriving from an Islamist party possibly leading the government.
"The parties will have to come together in coalitions, in fact some are already doing so, so I don't think there is much risk," he told French news channel France 24. "On the contrary, we have continuity with a change of face."
Moroccan political analyst Matti Monjib explained that the king "wants a government that doesn't govern too much," which could be a problem if any new coalition really tries to change things in the kingdom, such as the PJD's promised anti-corruption drive – which might even target palace cronies.
The Islamists biggest rival for the top spot is Finance Minister Salaheddine Mezouar's Rally of Independents, which leads an alliance of seven other pro-palace parties.
Mezouar said he expected his coalition to take a majority of the parliament and ruled out any kind of alliance with the Islamists. He also told The Associated Press that he expected a high turnout.
"I am confident about the level of participation, because during this campaign we've seen how interested the citizens are in this election, enormously more than in 2007," he said.
Even with activists agitating against the vote and a middle class disillusioned with the process, Morocco's traditional voting machine will still be functioning on Friday.
In rural areas, notables will gather up peasants and bring them to polling stations and instruct them whom to vote for, while in the slums around the big cities, local power brokers will deliver the votes of the poor.
The traditional voting system could also buoy a coalition of eight pro-palace parties that could form the next government and ensure the king has a friendly prime minister carrying out his wishes.
But many see the status quo as dangerous for Morocco with an economy creaking from the amount of money the government has pumped into raising salaries and subsidies to keep people calm amid the Arab world turmoil.
"The palace must understand that it cannot continue like this, to guarantee the continuation of the monarchy it has to understand that it is no longer an authoritarian system, but a democratic one, there is no longer a choice," warned Baha of the PJD.