By Aziz El Yaakoubi
IMIDER, Morocco (Reuters) - Campaigning for Friday's local elections, Moroccan lawmaker Ahmed Sakdi made sure to hammer home his Islamist party's anti-corruption message to a few dozen voters listening to his speech in the desert town of Imider.
Turnout may have been meager, but Friday's vote in towns and villages across Morocco will pose an important test for Sakdi's Justice and Development Party (PJD), which leads Morocco's governing coalition.
The local elections are the first since King Mohammed put forward a new constitution and devolved some of his powers to stifle protests that erupted in 2011 when three other North African nations -- Tunisia, Egypt and Libya -- all toppled their autocratic rulers.
Voting in villages like Imider will not only highlight the local problems that people want addressed; it may also illustrate the degree of apathy towards a political system still dominated by the PJD, and ultimately by the palace.
A weak showing by the PJD could be seen as a vote against the legitimacy of the limited reforms introduced by the king, leaving Morocco more vulnerable if protests rekindle.
Nearly 30 parties are competing with mostly similar platforms and slogans such as fighting corruption and ending privileges, in a contest for more than 30,000 local council seats and nearly 700 regional council posts.
"If the people give us the chance to rule, we will show them how we have established a complete program to keep reforming and end corruption," Sakdi told the small crowd.
Except for one coalition of three small leftist groups, no parties directly challenge the king's powers. Other leftists and the largest Islamist group, harsher in their criticism of the monarchy, have been boycotting the political process.
That leaves Morocco's premier Abdelilah Benkirane and his PJD party facing the greatest challenge.
Like other Islamist parties that came to power after the Arab Spring revolts, the PJD has run on a platform of changing 'old regime' ways and fighting corruption. But it has never challenged the king as the country's ultimate authority.
Within the limits of the constitutional monarchy, other parties may look to challenge PJD dominance, including the conservative Istiqlal (Independence) party and the Authenticity and Modernity party (PAM).
PAM was formed by a royal adviser, Fouad Ali El Himma, but has been weakened by his later resignation from the party, which was criticized as a symbol of corruption by protesters in 2011.
The PJD has controlled only a few towns since the last local election in 2009. But since rising to lead the government coalition after 2011, it may take a hit at the polls if voters blame it for poor opportunities and a lack of jobs, issues that have been catalysts for social unrest elsewhere in North Africa.
Three kilometers from Imider, dozens of poor and unemployed young villagers have been holding a permanent sit-in since 2011. They have cut off the flow of water from a well that supplies one of the biggest silver mines in Africa.
Protesters want to make the company hire more locals and reconsider its water and environmental policies. Societe Miniere d’Imider (SMI) is a subsidiary of the country’s biggest mining group Managem, controlled by the royal family holding SNI.
The company said it had resolved the crisis by replacing the well with another one, located in a neighboring village, and by recycling water.
SMI's production dropped 40 percent in 2011 but it has jumped again by more than 40 percent between 2012 and 2014, the company said.
In 2014, output was 185.5 tonnes, according to its data, still far below the 300 tonnes of silver metal that had been expected by the end of 2013.
"If there is silver and gold beneath our land, then why are we so poor?" said Said Boukhari, one of the protesters.
"We know it is the king’s company, but I hope he knows that we have been suffering."
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)