Ten Lessons from the Moroccan Elections
Mohammed Hashas 20 September 2021

The Moroccan elections, held on the 8th of September, yielded remarkable results, worthy of analysis for national, regional, and international stakeholders. Ten facts and lessons can be drawn from them.

1. Moroccans have been voting since the 1960s and have become politically astute and pragmatic as regards the ballot box. At the start of what has become known as the “Arab revolts”, during the 2011 elections, they voted for a moderate Islamist party (Party of Justice and Development, PJD). The elections followed shortly after the adoption of a new constitution and faith in the same party was renewed 5 years later in 2016. Confidence in the PJD was not last however, and in 2021 elections the party was severely punished, ranking 8th and gaining only 13 seats in parliament of a possible 395. Even party leaders failed to re-gain their seats in what is generally considered a humiliating defeat that will have long-term repercussions, if not keep them out of the political sphere forever. The PJD ran for the first time in 1997. It ran in legislative elections in limited regions winning 12 seats. Following an upward swing, in 2002 it managed to gain 42 seats, 47 in 2007, 107 in 2011, and 125 in 2016. Now, two Royalist parties have led the elections, the National Rally of Independents (RNI) and the Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM).

2. At the time of the Arab revolts, there was a clear historical need for change and the alternatives at the time were few and far between. So the PJD was able to enter government and twice were able to lead it (2011-2016; 2016-2021). During its time leading the government, it passed some questionable policies, many of which countered its core ideology. The government implemented the creation of short-term contracts in the education sector, the promotion of French as the teaching language for sciences, frequent increases in the prices of basic goods and fuel, the legalization of cannabis, and ultimately the signature on the normalization of relations with Israel in December 2020. Having to rule within hybrid and unstable coalitions, as single rule by one party is not permitted by the electoral system, it was never able to gain the upper hand in decision making – a role often taken over in fact by the executive monarchy, its entourage and allies whenever there is a lack of clear authority and accountability on major strategic issues. Despite the fact that the Islamists were only co-leaders in the coalition government and did not truly lead it, the electorate reserved their punishment just for the PJD, voting primarily for two parties close to the Royal Palace, that had been demonized as corrupt and anti-democratic over the last decade. The overall electoral turnout reached nearly 51%, which is the highest it has been in the last decades, as if it were a mob sent out to punish the Islamists for their failure to deliver on their promises.

3. The charismatic leader of the Islamists, Abdelilah Benkirane, who led the first government between 2012 and 2016, faced resistance in his struggle against what he called the “crocodiles,” referring to the deep state or the Makhzen, during what are known as the months of “impasse” (Le blocage). The impasse refers to a five-month period in which Benkirane was unable to succumb to certain proposals when he was forming his second cabinet after the 2016 elections. Benkirane was forced into retirement and left the leadership of the party to his weaker successor Saadeddine Othmani who quickly formed a coalition government (2017-2021), a coalition he did not lead but simply managed. His coalition, too, passed severe policies, and it was under his government that the monarchy led the re-establishment of relations with Israel in December 2020. Even if the charismatic Benkirane had remained at the head of the party and government, he would not have won the recent elections, and the defeat might not have been so severe and surprising. Moroccans are fed up with his and his party’s rhetoric justifying every unpopular policy through the lens of peace and order. Three days before the elections, Benkirane appeared in a video watched by millions of Moroccans, and in which he encouraged them to vote and not boycott the elections, for the sake of the nation’s security and peace, as well as to provoke people against the National Rally of the Independents (RNI). Its head since only recently is Aziz Akhannouch, a friend of King Mohammed VI, Minister of Agriculture from 2007 until 2021, and one of the richest men in the country with a networth of around $2 billion – some estimates rank him second only to the King. In the video, Benkirane did not, however, ask Moroccans to vote for his party but for whichever party they deemed best, which perhaps may not have turned out quite as he expected. Little sympathy remains for him as he perhaps had imagined.

4. The winning RNI party was formed by Ahmed Osman, an in-law of King Hassan II (r. 1961-1999), in 1978 to combat the Socialists. It is considered an administrative party, i.e. close to the Makhzen, and has often been in government since its creation as an ally of whichever party leads the government. The party has come back now to lead Morocco. Economically, it is known as a liberal party, while socio-culturally, it is conservative though it considers itself center-right. At its head is the billionaire Akhannouch. There has been much talk about the source of his wealth, inherited from his father who was also close to the previous two kings. Most importantly, an ad hoc investigation by the Competition Council produced a report in which concerns were raised regarding monopolistic behaviors with his oil and gas company, Afriquia. It is to this report that Benkirane refers in his pre-election video. Akhannouch had been in politics since 2003, but left the RNI in 2012. He then rejoined the party only in 2016 when he was elected its president in order to face the Islamists. He did and he succeeded. He was received by King Mohammed VI on the 10th of September and was appointed Head of Government, charged with forming a cabinet.

5. The second party after the RNI is the PAM, also an administrative party which appeared as a movement for democracy around 2007 with the aim of facing the rising popularity of the Islamists. It was launched by Fouad Ali al-Himma, a former class-mate and friend of the King now turned one of his closest advisors. The party has been heavily criticized over the last fifteen years as a party of power, corruption, and wealth, and it has no history nor legitimacy in fighting for the promotion of democracy and social justice in society. For the last five years, it has experienced some changes in staff and with its new Secretary General, Abdellatif Wahbi, it has started talking about countering corruption and then about promoting democracy. Still, the will to combat the Islamists remains one of the major points of its (hidden) agenda. It has also been able to attain its aim with this electoral victory. The PAM will either create a coalition government with the RNI since they share influence, goals, and contacts (with the monarchy), or it will opt for playing the role of the opposition in parliament.

6. Since the two currently leading parties are close to the monarchy, followed by two more established parties, the Independence Party and the Socialist Union, this means that Moroccans have voted heavily against the Islamist PJD, even though the two winning parties have been suspected of corruption and authoritarian genes through their wealth and power. This could mean that Moroccans have been so exhausted by the unpopular policies implemented by the Islamists that they have turned to parties known for their nepotism and clientelism. However, this could also imply that Moroccans believe all parties to be inherently dishonest, opting for the lesser evil. The seemingly contradictory policies adopted by the Islamists despite themselves (or maybe because of it) during the last decade, allowed the masses to become aware that the political discourse of the Islamists is no different from that of other parties. This is perhaps the reason for which they voted against them both conscientiously and pragmatically. Moroccans have given the Islamists a chance in two elections, and yet have seen no socio-economic change; on the contrary, they felt new policies that no other previous government had cared to adopt and thus repudiated them at the ballot box. This is nonetheless an important sign of political maturity in the public sphere.

7. Moroccans would not have waited to see if the Islamists would have succeeded in Tunisia or in Egypt, for instance. Although the Arab revolts brought ample opportunity for assessing different Islamist approaches to government, Morocco has been guided by its own experience over the last 60 years. Morocco itself cannot be compared to the experiences of these other countries because its own political system is so different. Morocco has been an Islamic emirate for at least twelve centuries, and will continue being so without drawing from the examples of Tunisia, Egypt, or Afghanistan. This does not mean that comparisons cannot be useful to understand the orientations, the successes, and failures of the Islamists in each country, regionally, and globally; local histories matter. The way the Moroccans have elected and dismissed the Islamists through the ballot box is a major lesson not only for Islamists worldwide but also for political analysts internationally – irrespective of the intricate games the deep state has played to recruit, test, and then banish them (the Islamists).

8. What does the future of the Islamic party, the PJD, look like after this crushing defeat? I think that the party will be excommunicated by the constituency for a long time, if not forever, and the polarity between Benkirane and Othmani may grow into an internal division of the party, which is already there since the “impasse” of 2017. Othmani will most probably retreat from political life, while Benkirane will come back as a leader behind the scenes, back-seat driving a new generation of Islamists. Abdelali Hami-Eddine, a younger leader close to Benkirane’s camp, may shine as a rising star within the party. Nevertheless, the party will not be able to recover from this for at least two electoral rounds, unless the current ruling party fails in its socio-economic projects, which I suspect will not come about, since it will be supported by the monarchy’s entourage, unlike the Islamists. The Moroccans may not put their trust in the Islamists again for at least another fifteen to twenty years. That is until after the party’s stagnation is shattered with the arrival of new leaders, and after a new generation of Moroccan youth comes onto the scene and finds in the party’s discourse an answer to their needs. And even if the party returns twenty years from now, should a social and regional necessity emerge, it is probable that their discourse will be different, as will be their future leaders. Their time seems over, and they may return, in the long run, only if socio-economic conditions do not improve.

9. The current leading party, the RNI, will not govern alone. It will form coalitions, because the electoral system as well as the removal of the electoral threshold adopted in these elections have weakened the possibility for any single party to dominate parliament. Will the new governing party reduce social vulnerability, and deterioration in health and education in the country? Will it succeed in defending the principles of modern democracy, such as freedom of speech? Will it be able to secure the release of prisoners of conscience, especially in light of the uptick in arrests over the last ten years? Will it be able to tie responsibility to accountability or will the judicial system still depend on wealth and power?

10. The RNI is not known for its defense of democracy, its main principles, and the division of power, and neither is the PAM. These elections present both parties with a historical opportunity to correct their “clientelist” history, if they seek to bring a social and culturally democratic spirit onto the Moroccan political scene. Otherwise, we can expect more skirting around the rule of law, which would lead to more popular discontent, which in turn would need an outlet, a strong opposition, a savior-party. The state/Makhzen has its own outlets and means of managing social protests and tensions in society. One possible scenario for any future social deadlock is the emergence of a leftist coalition that bases its image on being the reformer, the defendant of social democracy and the welfare state. Were the Socialist Union, one of Morocco’s larger historical parties to join this coalition of smaller left-leaning parties, it could form a united front to counter the more conservative parties’ avid neoliberalism and become once again a formidable opposition force. This scenario is not so farfetched, but the coming election cycles will allow us to see how things progress with the new government and its allies. What is sure is that the immediate policies of the forthcoming government will be more appeasing, and better than those of the previous government, not only to calm social tensions currently in increase but also to further tarnish the image of the Islamists and their past ten years of coalition rule.

 

Overall, the Islamists have become like most other parties in Morocco: they begin as a movement, then enter the parliament in the opposition; they join the government and lead it, during which they are domesticated by realpolitik, and eventually punished by the electorate. As long as the process is peaceful, it remains a source of pride in the country’s history and that of the region in general in spite of its defects, which are a blurriness in the division of powers, an avoidance of the rule of law, and general lack of accountability. The Islamists have not governed alone during these ten years, but they were the only ones to be punished at the ballot box. They had very limited experience in government and had taken on responsibilities too large to meet, perhaps larger than any previous coalition government with more experience and influence due to the difficult regional circumstances that were punctuated by the Arab revolts of 2011-2012. If Moroccans wish to remember any positive contribution of the Islamists, that would be their work in a spirit of peace and national feeling; they came into power through national elections and left the scene through national elections; that is a major lesson for all Islamists, and all parties generally, in the Arab and Islamic world and beyond. Moreover, the Moroccan Islamists did not ally themselves with the Egyptians or the transnational Muslim Brothers nor with any foreign ally or agenda; rather, they strengthened the meaning of the sovereign state and territorial unity and the place of political Islam within these boundaries. Apart from this very important achievement, the Islamists remain just like any other political current; they speak, they try, and make and often break their promises. This is a matter of politics, not of faith or of the sacred. Even faith and the sacred change. The Moroccan Islamists’ slogan has never been “Islam is the solution,” as some analysts may think. They suffered a certain intellectual void that was filled by their work inside the Moroccan political and monarchial system, but their poor economic and social policies and their failure to support the middle and lower classes put them face to face with those who eventually made them pay dearly for their errors and missteps.

In other words, Morocco is still a system that alternates between oligarchy – in Plato’s categorization – and modern plutocracy, a system governed by a minority possessing wealth and power. We may say that Morocco is also a democracy according to Plato’s definition of the concept, as a rule of the few for their own interest and not for the interest of the public. Moroccan politics thus far is democratic only in this ancient definition of democracy, which in modern times is an insufficient definition. In order to reach the democracy of public interest, Moroccans do not wish to see ancient, Athenian democracy but that of modern London, Washington DC, and Paris, which is that of division of power and accountability. Putting into practice the advanced amendments of the 2011 Constitution and making the people in charge accountable, based on frequently issues reports of the Competition Council (Conseil de la concurrence, majlis al-munafasa), requires greater political courage from all political stakeholders in the country. It is the role of real democratic parties and civil society groups, in collaboration with the monarchy as a mediating power, to remain alert until these aspirations are gradually realized, without a need for coalition with foreign dictators, authoritarians, or colonial regimes. Democracy does not bring quick material wealth, but it protects public resources of all kinds to create this wealth in a context of just and fair competition.

 

Mohammed Hashas is a Research Fellow affiliate to Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO) in Berlin, and a non-Resident Research Fellow at the Center for Islam in the Contemporary World (CICW) in Shenandoah University in Virginia, USA. He teaches at Luiss University of Rome. His publications include The Idea of European Islam (2019), and Pluralism in Islamic Contexts (2021). 

 

Cover Photo: RNI leader Aziz Akhannouch holds a press conference after his party won Morocco’s parliamentary elections – Rabat, September 9, 2021 (Fadel Senna/AFP).


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