Moroccan Democracy: Slow but Sure to Win the Race?
Mohammed Hashas 8 May 2014

Short comments on five major features can give some insightful answers on Moroccan democratization process – assuming that democracy is the best available political scheme that helps in improving the human condition. One, on constitutionalism and representatives: Morocco boasts of one of the oldest monarchies in the world (twelve centuries old); despite the various shortcomings of monarchies in non-democratic societies, Moroccan history does not feature vast periods as dark as those of absolute monarchs of Europe; the monarch often ruled in consultation with a quasi-independent religious body of scholars, and tribal bodies in the various regions of the country, bodies that worked as representatives of the tribe. This old aspect of consultation disappeared with the idea of the centrist modern nation state. The inability to adapt old local political customs with the modern institutions installed with colonialism have left the country divided into two systems that are still uneasy to distinguish: a traditional and a modern one. That makes Morocco a monarchy with a constitution, instead of being a constitutional monarchy à la UK, Belgium, or Scandinavian constitutional monarchies. I classify the modern constitutional stages in the country into three: 1) failed constitutionalism (1908-1972) during which the state and the king could be described as one body; 2) limited constitutionalism (1972-1992) during which the king shared powers; and 3) transitory constitutionalism (2011 – present) in which the king shares more of his powers without letting go of all of them, in an arrangement that could be said to constitute a system of “semi-constitutional monarchy.”[1]

Two, on elections: it follows from the above major point that the maker(s) of law are not people, but the monarchy, despite the fact that elections have been taking place in the country since the 1960s. Unlike most Arab countries, Morocco opted since its independence in 1956 to political representation and participation of the people through direct local and legislative elections. This was interrupted especially in the 1970s for various failed military coup d’états against the monarchy. The right to vote a representative is not bolstered with other rights, or principles of democracy, which makes it then unfruitful. The following explain the point.

Three, on civil liberties: Moroccans enjoy a remarkable scope of freedoms compared to the rest of the Arab world. Unlike the common image on liberties in the whole region, the problem is not only about women rights; it is primarily about all citizens rights; if all citizens enjoy their rights, women will find it easier than is commonly featured in the media, despite the fact that they are a more vulnerable gender. While some socio-cultural markers still hinder the enlargement of the scope of liberties of thought, it is the right to information and critical education that affect the way the people express politically their choices through the ballot box. While the margin of civil liberties is already remarkable, they are not, however, well-informed. The high rates of illiteracy makes the liberties enjoyed vulnerable to mis-information that, for example, affect the political electoral results, and profound political participation in discussing the strategic interests of the country.

Three, on the rule of law: the country suffers from a sharp lack of the application of the principle of the rule of law. Despite its various constitutions, including the current promising one, the state has not managed to match rights with duties as enshrined in the constitution and different laws. Laxity dominates. Lack of accountability, favouritism, and rooted corruption in all sectors weakens the general aspirations of the country towards democracy (as a safeguard of liberties, equality, and social justice).

Four, on the judiciary: the third note above implies that the judiciary cannot be free in a context where the rule of law is weak, favouritism is practiced, and corruption is dominant. The project on reforming the judiciary is still being discussed; civil society protests of some abuse of power have increased, but still that is not enough.

Five, on organized opposition party: in front of this dark picture, what does the opposition do? The opposition is fragmented, like the government coalition. Pre-the Arab Spring, the opposition was led by the Socialist party (the current al ittihad al ishtiraqi) that fought for civil liberties, democratization, and constitutional democracy since the late 1950s. It was co-opeted and it entered a coalition government in 1997, the result of which were not up to the expectations of both the party leaders themselves and their constituency. Since the late 1990s until 2010, the moderate Islamist PJD party emerged as the major voice of opposition against corruption, slow economic growth, and slow political institutional change. With the Arab Spring events, the PJD led the elections of 25 November 2011, under a reformed constitution adopted on 1 July 2011. The electoral system does not allow a majority win, which obliges the leading party to enter into coalitions. The first coalition government failed after less than two full years, and a new one was formed of parties that have strongly been against each other in electoral campains; it is a coalition to save the face of this transitional phase in the country. As to the opposition, it is now composed mostly by parties that have been in governance for decades (hizb al istiqlal and al ittihad al ishtiraqi) or by a new party that has emerged for the last few years (i.e. the PAM), and is looked at with strong critical eyes by the other major parties, for its closeness to the manarchy’s circle, and its hidden undemocratic agenda, as its opponents consider it. Broadly, the opposition has been tested in the government before, and achieved little, and its voice now in the opposition weighs very little, if nothing.

These broad notes on some of the major features that help in measuring the democratic spirit of a political system demonstrate that the country has yet a long way to go. Representative democracy seems not to have influenced the democratization of the “deep state” – or the makhzen in Moroccan political diction – that permeates all sectors. High disproportionate wealth distribution, high rates of unemployment, lack of decent housing, remarkable incapacities in public health services, increasing problems in the educational system, high level of bureaucratization, and high rates of corruption records comprared to regional and international standards are clear signs that the reforms started especially since 1999 have not yet challenged the “deep state” structures.

At the same time, this does not mean that the head of the state, the king Mohammed VI, is not democratic. The paradox in the country is that while the king seems super-active and reformist, it is the entourage, the makhzen that has gained wealth and power for decades since the colonial period, which appears unwilling to change power structures and wealth distribution. The king may be described as the right king in the wrong monarchy – meaning the makhzen by the monarchy. The challenge then is this: how far can Moroccans depend on a reformist king and a corrupt entourage? Can they be always fortunate to have such a king? Is not having strong institutions that abide by the rule of law the most secure path to take to truly realize the idea of Moroccan exceptionalism in the region?

Regional and international affairs certainly affect the process of change in the country. Current failures of change in countries like Egypt, stagnation in relations with Algeria, the unsolved issue of Western Sahara, the complexity of the Syrian case and its regional and international impacts affect the economy of the country and the level of political changes the stakeholders inside the country and outside it may allow. In the light of these various internal and external challenges, the safest outlet of a smooth democratic change requires that the king goes on with his reformist projects. The latter need support from civil society and the political parties that are ready to distance themselves from the makhzen for public good. The road ahead is long and full of challenges.


[1] For more on this, see: Hashas, “Moroccan Exceptionalism Examined: Constitutional Insights Pre- and post-2011, ” IAI Working Papers 13/34, December 2013, pp. 18, at:



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