MOROCCO’S ELECTIONS: SUPERFICIAL CHANGES OR SHIFT TOWARDS DEMOCRACY?

Pro-democracy activists took to the streets on 05 December 2011, in Rabat to protest what they considered were sham parliamentary elections. There was only one problem: barely anyone turned up. Although Casablanca, Morocco’s largest city, saw nearly 4,000 people stage protests the very same day, that number was considerably less than the tens of thousands seen in the past, and also pales in comparison to the demonstrations taking place elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East. While the Maghreb has been swept up by a wave of mass demonstrations and conflict, with some, like Libya, leading to full-scale bloody revolutions, and others like Tunisia experiencing a relatively peaceful transition towards democracy, Morocco seems to have bucked this trend. To some this may be a sign of a shift towards democracy, however, underneath the façade of peace lies the truth: Most Moroccans want democracy, but have become so disenchanted by the country’s corrupt political process that they have largely avoided democratic participation.

Thanks in part to King Mohammed VI’s strategies, including implementing arguably superficial constitutional reforms, and aligning himself at least on the surface, with the winning moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD), the monarchy has quashed the more extreme elements of the Arab Spring. Nevertheless, the seeds of unrest remain. Unless the PJD Party balances its alliance with the monarchy whilst working to make changes from within, in the coming months Morocco may see a widespread rebellion that may ultimately unseat the king.

King’s Strategies and the Winning Party

Fearing the same fate as his neighbours in the Maghreb, the Moroccan monarchy, the region’s oldest, went on a pre-emptive strike in order to quell unrest. First, King Mohammed VI announced on 09 March 2011, that the parliament would receive “new powers that enable it to discharge its representative, legislative, and regulatory mission”. The king then enacted a new constitution, which was sold to the public as a means of launching a new democratic era for the country, after it was approved in a July 2011 referendum. The reforms within the new constitution, most of which have apparently not been disclosed to the public, promised to strengthen the independence of the country’s judiciary, tackle corruption, guarantee freedom of speech make Berber an official language alongside Arabic, as well as secure women’s rights. The new changes also call for the king to choose a prime minister from a winning party instead of naming whomever he pleases. In this case, Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD)’s leader Abdelilah Benkirane was chosen after winning the majority of the vote on the 23 November 2011, elections. Despite these reforms many Moroccans feel that the king’s changes were merely superficial, with some describing them as a “farce”. Although the changes may slightly improve the country’s democratic process, the balance of power between the king and the government remains lopsided in favour of the monarchy. Mustapha al-Khalfi, a leader in the PJD Party, said he believes that opposition parties backed by the monarchy may seek to challenge any further reforms. “The key challenge is to make sure democratic management of public affairs prevails over the authoritarian style,” Khalfi said. “We expect manoeuvres that will seek to derail this process”.

Tough Challenges Ahead

Although a poll published on 10 December 2011, revealed that more than 82% of Moroccans say they are confident in Benkirane’s ability to run government, Benkirane’s Party faces an uphill battle, both to continue garnering support from the public, as well to actually enact the promises his party has made. For one thing, most Moroccans remain disenchanted with the political process overall as indicated by the low eligible voter turnout of 45%. Although this figure is higher than the previous parliamentary voter turnout of 37% in 2007, the number is considered misleading as it only refers to the percentage of registered voters. Reports indicate that the number of registered voters actually dropped from 15.5 million in 2007 to 13.5 million in 2011. Additionally, many Moroccan remain sceptical of the PJD’s intentions, with some fearing that the group will not honour its promises of transparency, and thus continue with the country’s political tradition of corruption. This hopelessness, combined with the country’s high unemployment rate (figures show that 31% of Moroccan youth are unemployed), may pose tough challenges for the PJD Party. Although Benkirane, which has at least for now the backing of the public, has promised to enact a series of economic reforms, he still has declared the party’s intentions to refer to the King as the head of all affairs. Ultimately, unlike the more radical al-Adl w’al Ihsane movement, the country’s largest Islamic organisation, the Party has said that it believes the monarchy has the “divine right to rule,” which allows the king the final say on matters related to the military, security and religious affairs. Thus, the PJD is not expected to get a lot of say in the political process.

Going Forward-Working from Within?

Although things are not expected to change much, all hope is not lost as the PJD may seek to quietly implement changes from within without disrupting Morocco’s delicate political ecosystem. In fact, Benkirane’s professed allegiance to the crown may be a necessary political calculation. In order to secure those powers, Benkirane must avoid confrontations with the king’s entourage. He has no choice. Likewise, the king, who has traditionally feared Islamists, moderate or otherwise, also needs to cosy up to Benkirane at least on the surface to prevent an outbreak of unrest. Such chess-like political manoeuvring may be dangerous, as the Moroccan public may not understand Benkirane’s intentions, and he may also risk infighting from his own party. If Benkirane fails to shift the balance of power towards parliament, he may anger party members and face isolation from the public. For decades PJD has made promises to improve democracy, reduce social inequalities, and quash corruption, a difficult task especially as the final authority has all the power and money in the world: the king is estimated to be worth US$2 billion. Still, any failure to live up to these lofty goals may result in unrest. Analysts expect the Moroccan citizens to give the PJD party a chance, but only a small one, about four months. In the end, Benkirane faces a tough dilemma: he must either stand up to the king, or stay in power and lose the will of the people.

(Image: IKHWAN Web)

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