Morocco’s legislative elections on Friday will be met with an apathetic electorate—signaled by the reduced number of registered voters: despite population growth and a change in the voting age from 21 to 18, the number of registered voters has dropped by over two million to 13 million since 2003. The constitutional amendments announced in June do not alter the balance of power between parliament and the king, nor do they reform the electoral law that limits the ability of large national parties to win a majority of seats. For once, however, the identity of the party that will emerge victorious from the elections has become of interest to the public, as the outcome of the elections will influence the future of the popular movements pushing for change outside the institutional context.
Morocco’s February 20 popular demonstrations created a new political reality by bringing together hundreds of thousands of citizens: for the first time since the ascension of Mohammed VI to the throne, the country situated itself with the two principals face to face with one another: the street and the palace. Organized by a Facebook-based network of Moroccan youth that formed after the fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia, this pro-democracy movement demanded an end to corruption and autocracy, the dissolution of the government’s “elected” institutions, fair elections unsupervised by the Interior Ministry, and the establishment of a parliamentary monarchy in which the king reigns, but does not rule. Demonstrators did not criticize the king himself except in isolated cases—a decision intended to guard against violent police reactions and keep from alienating supporters of a constitutional monarchy. Instead, the king’s closest counselors, like Fouad El Himma (his most influential advisor) and Mounir Majidi (who is called “the Rami Makhlouf” of Morocco) were the primary targets of the street’s anger.
In his first response to the protests on March 9, the king promised demonstrators far-reaching constitutional reform that gave executive powers to the prime minister, who would be officially given the title “the head of government”; judicial reform and greater public freedoms were also pledged. The February 20th Movement has since perceived these assurances as an attempt to stall for time, claiming they still fall short of the street’s demands.
The new constitution—which was carefully drafted at every stage by the king and his closest aides—is vaguer than the previous one, especially regarding the distribution of power between the king and the government. If interpreted in isolation, some articles give the impression that Morocco is on the verge of becoming a genuinely constitutional monarchy in which the executive branch rules and parliament legislates. This possible interpretation makes the November 25 elections politically significant: the constitution requires that the king choose a member of the winning party as “head of government”—consequently, who the victorious party will be is now of greater interest than in previous elections.
With that, however, so as to ensure a preferable outcome the palace has pushed the loyalist “administrative parties” (those established or sponsored by the Interior Ministry—e.g., the Authenticity and Modernity party, known as PAM; the RNI, a liberal party; and the Popular Movement) to form an electoral alliance with smaller organizations: a confederation called “G-8,” after the global economic organization. Among other things, this royalist alliance aims to outmaneuver the Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD), as it rides the coattails of Ennahda’s victory in Tunisia. And although the PJD is more conservative than Ennahda (and thus, less likely to secure secularist votes), it aims to garner around 70 of parliament’s 395 seats—emerging from the elections as the majority party.
But the regime has not shown any sign that the elections, which are framed by the new constitution, will truly be different from those prior. The outlined electoral system does not introduce any fundamental changes to the 2002 law and consequently still relies on districting that undermines national political parties in favor of local powerbrokers, who have no qualms about buying votes en masse. They also enjoy the protection of the state and palace because their demands are specifically local or sectoral, rather than political, in nature. Furthermore, the Interior Ministry is still in charge of organizing these elections, despite its atrocious track record of tampering with results. It was even allowed to set the conditions guiding electoral advertising in official media outlets—a task that should have been given to the High Authority for Audio-Visual Communication (HACA), which has the experience and resources to undertake this role and had been declared an “autonomous institution” under the new constitution. Rather the Interior Ministry took the opportunity to ban any calls for boycott of the elections even though several political parties—such as the United Socialist party (PSU) and the Democratic Socialist Vanguard Party (PADS) as well as many supporters of the February 20th Movement—will boycott the election.
Further, local observers have drawn attention to the fact that a number of candidates who the security agencies consider to be regime opponents have been banned from the race; Judge Jaafar Hassoun, former head of the Marrakesh administrative tribunal, is the most prominent example. Local authorities rejected Hassoun’s nomination on the PJD slate in his hometown on the basis that he had been fired from the judiciary less than a year earlier. However, in the summer 2010, Hassoun was also prevented from running in a judicial election on the grounds that he had been removed from his position. The justifications are, of course, contradictory, and the real reason behind the ban is that Hassoun has demonstrated a rare independent streak that has led the Ministry of Justice to swiftly remove him from his post on unsubstantiated corruption charges and without compensation.
Because of these limitations, the largest groups within the February 20th Movement announced they will boycott the elections. They organized nationwide demonstrations on Sunday and demanded an “end to corruption and autocracy,” reasserting that the official reforms announced do not in any way change the nature of the “absolute monarchy.” They emphasized that the proposals were intended to buy time and undermine the momentum of the pro-democracy youth movement, and there is already some discussion on how to prepare for a “million-man march” on the first anniversary of the protest: February 20, 2012.
As Sunday’s events demonstrate, street politics are likely to continue, and these groups are still able to organize protests in a number of different cities. But the outcome of the elections will affect the movement’s spread. The worst case scenario would be for the PJD to come out as victorious, with one of its leaders named head of the government, as such an outcome would restore credibility to the king’s reforms and the PJD would be unable to push for any core reforms once within the system. A PJD-led government would also have sway with the street, which could curb the popular momentum that the youth movement still enjoys. It is the only party which has stated that it will actually rule if it wins the voters’ trust, and that it will not simply follow the orders given by the king’s advisors or influential security officials. This relatively hard line on the monarchy’s control over decision-making is what pushed some secular activists and supporters of the February 20th Movement, such as the well-known businessman Karim Tazi, to announce they will vote for the PJD.
In contrast, the triumph of the G-8 coalition and the appointment of one of its leaders as prime minister would be the best opportunity the regime could give to those demanding further reform: it would demonstrate more clearly the limits of the proposed constitution—and remobilize the Moroccan street.
Maati Monjib is a political analyst and historian at University of Mohammed V-Rabat. He is the editor of Islamists versus Secularists in Morocco: Amsterdam, IKV, 2009.
This article was translated from Arabic.