How will recent amendments to the electoral system and political parties law—raising the threshold for parties to enter parliament and conditions for obtaining public funding—affect the legislative elections in September?
The electoral system in Morocco is mixed. There are 295 seats in parliament elected via proportional representation in local districts and an additional 30 seats allocated to women and elected on a nationwide basis. The newly established threshold (the proportion of votes a party must win to get a seat in parliament) is 7 percent in any given district. There is no national threshold for political parties. If we had been able to impose a national threshold of 10 percent to get a seat, for example, the September elections might have resulted in only two parties in parliament—or four or five parties if there had been a 7 percent national threshold. However, this did not happen, because the parties don't have enough power to change the electoral system, and some of them (unlike the USFP) totally reject change.
Are the small parties forming alliances to increase their chances at getting seats in parliament, and consequently to improve their relative positions for public funding (which requires attaining 5 percent of the popular vote nationally)?
Exactly. The small parties realize that they won't get more than a seat or two in parliament, and that their chances increase with alliances. For example, there is an alliance among three leftist parties to agree on candidates for the upcoming elections.
Why is it difficult for any party to win a majority in the Moroccan parliament?
For starters, there are technical factors. The current electoral system makes it unlikely that a party will win more than 20 percent of the seats, and encourages the dismemberment of electoral blocs. Another factor is that the large political parties in the first stage don't win more than 15 percent of the vote, and hence don't even come close to a majority in the following stages. There may be a third factor, which is that there are some in the Moroccan political system who don't wish to have strong political parties with a stable parliamentary majority.
Why have the larger parties announced their electoral platforms early this year?
In the 2002 elections, the USFP announced its platform a few weeks before the elections, and so the party's candidates did not rely heavily on the platform in campaigning. Today, things are different. The parties were able to announce their platforms months before the elections due to the fact that the election date was set relatively far in advance for the first time. The USFP began readying its platform in October 2006, with teams of party theorists, activists, and outside experts taking part in the preparation for the first time. After approving it in the general party congress, the USFP announced the platform. The Istiqlal party and the Party of Justice and Development (PJD) also have announced their platforms. It is noteworthy that all the platforms have moved beyond the general statements of the past to focus on the details of proposed public policies. Here we can see the influence of a new generation of activists within the parties.
Are there fundamental differences among the various platforms that would impede a possible governing coalition between, for example, the USFP and the PJD?
The main differences among the parties' platforms lie in their views of the role of religion in society, as well as politics and culture. The USFP and PJD platforms differ on the type of society the parties want, the role of religion in politics, the values in the educational system, the status of women, youth issues, economic management, and also regional and international relations. Here the Istiqlal party chose to take the middle ground; it is closer to the USFP on some issues and Justice and Development on others. So I would say that a ruling coalition between the USFP and Justice and Development is a very remote prospect. My belief is that the election will not result in an overwhelming victory for any one party, and will allow the current coalition among the USFP, Istiqlal, and other parties to continue in power.
How has participating in ruling coalitions affected the USFP as a party?
It's tricky, as there are both positive and negative aspects. On the positive side, the party undoubtedly learned much about political management and public affairs, and gained a realism that it had not previous possessed. The party's platform had been concerned with defending social demands without paying attention to resources, and it had put political and constitutional reform first. In the current platform, economic and social development is at the forefront as a prerequisite to social and political reform. The party also established an undeniably positive record of managing public affairs during the past years, especially in economics, education, human rights, and social security. The negative aspects of participating in government emerged when the party did not take a clear stance on important political issues due to the need to compromise with its partners, and when it was unable to communicate constructively with its electoral base.
What will be the challenges for the new parliament to be elected in September?
I don't think that the upcoming elections will radically change the present balance of political power. The real challenge for us in Morocco is that of economic and social development, first and foremost. There are certainly other key issues having to do with constitutional and political reform, the parliament's status, and building the rule of law, but development is an essential means to progress on these other tracks. In Morocco today, through the current political system, the parliament has more opportunities and space to push for political reforms than it has exploited successfully. We need to do that in the new parliament.
What is the status of liberal and leftist parties in Morocco ? Are they witnessing a crisis similar to that in other Arab countries?
The parties' situation here is different from that of their counterparts in the eastern part of the Arab world. Moroccan politics since independence has always included party pluralism, and the liberal and leftist parties have strong popular bases . These parties will most likely maintain, if not improve, their positions in the September elections. Yes, there is calcification within some liberal and leftist parties, and they badly need to open up to new social and demographic groups and attract activists and leaders from the younger generations, while taking a new look at their ideological and political focuses. Nonetheless, parties such as Istiqlal and USFP will not lose their popular bases; their presence in the Moroccan street is strong. Through the adoption of the infitah (opening) initiative at the USFP's seventh congress, we have recruited thousands of new members. Today we are involved in a process of self-renewal whose fruits can be seen in the recently announced electoral platforms.
This interview was conducted by Amr Hamzawy , senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. It was translated from Arabic by Paul Wulfsberg.