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Morocco: PJD elects veteran leader as head of party after electoral defeat

Abdelilah Benkirane named secretary-general of the Islamist party, which suffered a serious blow in September elections
The secretary-general of the Islamist Justice and Development Party and former prime minister, Abdelilah Benkirane, arrives for a meeting in Sale, Morocco on 18 March 2017 (AFP)

Morocco's main Islamist party, which had been in government for a decade before September elections, chose Abdelilah Benkirane as its new leader on Saturday.

Benkirane, 67, a previous Justice and Development Party (PJD) leader and former prime minister who is popular among activists, was elected secretary-general with more than 80 percent of the vote at an emergency party congress, the PJD said.

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In parliamentary elections last month, the PJD saw its 125 seats in the previous assembly slashed to just 13 out of a total of 395, sparking mass resignation of its leadership.

Having swept to power in the wake of the 2011 uprisings around the Middle East and North Africa, the Muslim Brotherhood -aligned party had hoped to secure a third term in a ruling coalition.

But many among its base were angered by a decision last year to normalise ties with Israel, as well as by moves to legalise medical cannabis.

After its defeat at the ballot box, the party did not take part in coalition negotiations, instead announcing a switch to its "natural" position in the opposition.

King Mohammed VI this month named a new government led by Aziz Akhannouch, a billionaire tycoon who leads the National Rally of Independents (RNI) party, which won 102 seats.

Benkirane is seen as a charismatic politician appreciated by Islamist activists but accused of "populism" by his detractors.

His return comes five years after being sacked by the king as then head of the Islamist government.

September marked the first time in 24 years that Benkirane was totally absent from the ballot and from the electoral campaign as a whole, leading some at the time to speculate on his return to head the party in the event of its electoral defeat.

Benkirane now faces the task of rebuilding the PJD.