In contrast to the 2011 elections that brought the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) to power, this year’s October 7 legislative elections for Morocco’s House of Representatives present an uneventful ballot, at least on the surface. Beyond a tense rivalry between the PJD and their primary opposition, the secular Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), the elections largely indicate a normalization of the post-2011 era. The rivalry, which has consumed public debate, overshadows important yet unaddressed structural social and economic issues that have long plagued the country.
This polarization also obscures the largely non-ideological and clientelistic nature of most Moroccan political parties. For example, ahead of the October 7 elections, the PJD and PAM have each managed to secure the support of one socialist party: the Party of Progress and Socialism (PPS) for the former and the social-democratic Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP) for the latter. Most of the other parties are waiting on the final results to negotiate their participation with the winner in a ruling coalition, as Article 47 of the 2011 Constitution mandates that the king choose the prime minister from the biggest party in parliament.
Knowing that their electoral strength is limited, these parties are mainly reactivating their membership and patronage networks by making unlikely electoral promises and hardening their rhetoric while quietly signaling their relative proximity to either the PJD or the PAM, without precluding any options. For example, the centrist National Rally of Independents (RNI) has been in government almost continually since its foundation in 1978 and is likely to join the next government coalition regardless of the winner. Another staunchly pro-monarchy and centrist party, the Constitutional Union (UC), has a more confrontational position vis-à-vis the PJD and is unlikely to join the next government if the Islamists win. A third centrist party, the Popular Movement (MP), has a more cooperative stance toward the PJD and has already agreed in principle to be part of the next cabinet if the Islamists win; that said, they are likely to keep lines of communication open with the PAM if it comes out on top. Finally, the nationalist Istiqlal Party, a former member of the PJD’s first ruling coalition, has already signaled its proximity to and willingness to work with the PJD again, with whom it mended its relationship following a contentious few years in the opposition. At first glance, these positions seem to favor the PJD over the PAM—yet if the latter wins the elections, many of these formally pro-Islamist parties (for example, the MP and Istiqlal) will enter negotiations to join the next government.
Local media have widely spoken of the king’s neutrality in this ballot, but far from being the hallmark of a free and fair election, King Mohamed VI’s distance is a sign that this round hardly matters in Morocco’s institutional division of labor. The king is de facto the exclusive decision maker on a series of long-term and strategic matters, ranging from foreign policy to big infrastructure projects and the status of Western Sahara. On all other (usually short-term) issues such as fiscal policy, transportation, and tourism, parliament and government are free to choose the policies as long as they are compatible with the monarchy’s preferred approach. When these policies cross the monarchy’s red lines, the government has to backtrack. This has been the case when the Islamist government has tried to tackle economic rents or increase transparency and competition in, for example, how licenses for sand mining and transportation are distributed. No mainstream party is ready to challenge this arrangement.
In light of this, it is hardly surprising that there is a large consensus within the political class about key policy issues. With the exception of the campaign to legalize cannabis cultivation, which the PAM supports, the PJD and its challenger agree on the country’s long-term goals. Divergences are largely superficial: for instance, the PJD highlights its commitment to advancing democracy and continuing economic reforms implemented since 2011 (without specifying what measures will support these goals), while the PAM stresses its aim to accelerate the pace of industrialization and economic growth (but has so far failed to explain how this would come about). When it comes to the main economic measures adopted in the past five years by the Islamist government, such as phasing out subsidies and reforming the pension system by raising the retirement age, the PAM tends to disagree on minor details while agreeing on the overall framework.
The main parties’ consensus also means that they agree to leave Morocco’s structural economic issues alone, which are therefore unlikely to be discussed in the next term. The IMF and the World Bank point to three major problems that undermine the long-term economic development of Morocco and explain its persistently low growth rates despite the apparent success of its investment policy. First, the country has extremely low levels of human capital and one of the worst-performing education systems in the MENA region, according to all surveys in this field. Second, there is very little competition in most domestic sectors. From retail to banking and telecommunications, the domestic economy is controlled by companies tied to the monarchy and its inner circle, while the bodies supposed to enforce competition have been rendered useless. This lack of competition negatively affects productivity and innovation in the economy. Finally, Morocco’s economic governance is unable to guarantee a level playing field to businesses, which remain susceptible to political interference. With the partial exception of education (where there is a technocratic consensus that more needs to be done to fix it), the other structural issues are taboos in Moroccan politics, as they touch upon vested interests and the political and economic role of the monarchy.
Instead, the PAM and PJD have been trying desperately to emphasize their differences by developing two superficially opposing narratives. The PAM has been trying to ride the region’s anti-Islamist wave and appeal to center-left voters in a way that resembles Tunisan President Beji Caid Essebsi’s electoral campaign in 2014. As for the PJD, Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane often hints that the main resistance he has faced as prime minister has been from other, clientelistic parties and the king’s entourage (the businessmen, journalists, and notables closely linked to the monarchy, as well as Mohamed VI’s influential team of advisors, who act as a parallel cabinet). Often resorting to Moroccan dialect in his speeches, Benkirane tries to mobilize his conservative, middle-class, and urban constituencies by presenting the PJD as an anti-establishment party.
These narratives reflect a real sociological opposition. The PJD is almost exclusively an urban party: it is extremely popular in places like Fes, Casablanca, Rabat, Tangiers, and Agadir. Thanks to the low turnout rates in these cities and its highly mobilized voters, the PJD has given voice to the conservative and middle-class constituencies that are loath to undermine the monarchy but demand more transparency and better services. This explains the appeal of Benkirane’s anti-establishment rhetoric: many PJD voters see themselves as part of a rising social class (for example, small- and medium-sized business owners) that is suffocated by the traditional elites’ grip on politics and the economy.
In contrast, the PAM is a largely rural party that tends to perform best outside of Morocco’s big cities. In this environment, characterized by the weak ideological mobilization of voters, patronage networks play a decisive role in determining the electoral outcome. Traditionally, landowners and rural notables have favored the parties that are perceived to have the closest ties to the monarchy and can guarantee political and social stability. The PAM’s pro-monarchy and pro-stability narrative, its close ties to the king’s entourage, and the growing presence of notables in its ranks appeal to the rural elites—who have been hit by the PJD’s tax reforms in the agricultural sector since 2013—and the country’s establishment, which mobilizes its large clientele to influence the ballot.
Outside of these two parties, the other political and social formations play a marginal role. The always fractious left will field one list, the Democratic Left Federation (FDG), while other groups like Annahj Addimocrati will continue to boycott the legislative elections to protest the conditions in which they take place. The left seems unable to broaden its appeal beyond a minority of educated, city-based Moroccans. As for the main Islamist movements, al-Adl wal-Ihsan, Morocco’s biggest religious organization, continues to be critical of the monarchy; though its rhetoric has been softening lately, it is still not allowed to present a list. In contrast, Salafi preachers have become quite fashionable. The PJD tried to field a controversial Salafi preacher in Marrakech, but his candidacy was struck down by the local governor. Meanwhile, other parties, including Istiqlal and the Democratic and Social Movement (MDS), have also offered candidacies to Salafis. As Salafis remain on the margins of Moroccan politics, the main parties are competing to secure their votes by offering them token candidacies.
This election will solidify this facade of normality, which fits with the monarchy’s goals of political stability, greater foreign investment, and long-term economic development. The likely low voter turnout rate is not a source of concern, as the monarchy can present the polarization of the political party system—and the successful inclusion of an Islamist party—as a sign of the ongoing process of democratization following the adoption of the 2011 constitutional amendments. Nevertheless, deeper social and economic issues remain outside of this electoral contest, despite their relevance to Morocco’s political and economic life. The king continues to exert a degree of power and influence that stifles the country’s democratic evolution, and multilateral lenders continue to point out the limits of Morocco’s economic model, but no political actor is willing to tackle these problems.
Riccardo Fabiani is a North Africa analyst at Eurasia Group.