Morocco’s Justice and Development Party (PJD) will hold its seventh congress on July 14 and 15 under extraordinary circumstances; for the first time, the PJD will be holding this conference as the ruling party—a new reality that raises many questions about its internal governance. Abdelilah Benkirane is both head of the government and the PJD’s secretary-general; many of the party’s ten ministers serve at the same time as members of the general secretariat with active portfolios within the organization. Some members have quietly begun discussing the possibility of separating the party’s governmental work from its organization, as is done in a number of countries, and this debate will undoubtedly be pushed into the open during the conference. 

The conference also takes place amid trying economic times and the public has high expectations that the PJD’s participation in the government will bring about tangible economic improvements. Additionally, the Arab uprisings and elections across the region have focused international scrutiny on the political agendas of Islamist parties. How will this charged atmosphere affect the conference’s proceedings, and what outcomes should we expect?

The most publicized item is the election of the secretary-general, and the likeliest outcome is that the party will reelect Benkirane. From the party’s perspective, he has successfully led the PJD in the ruling coalition (which includes three other parties), and he has overcome serious political challengers—perhaps the most imposing of which was Fouad Ali al-Himma, a former classmate and close friend of King Mohammed VI who left his job as minister of the interior to run a successful bid for parliament in 2007, and later formed the Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM). PAM repeatedly declared its intention to stand up to the PJD, and the PJD accused it of leading a campaign to break up its alliances in the 2009 municipal elections. Benkirane’s strident opposition to the PAM consolidated him as an uncontested leader in the eyes of party activists. Today, there are no serious challengers to Benkirane’s leadership of Justice and Development, but Minister of Foreign Affairs (and former PJD secretary-general) Saad-Eddine El Othmani could have a very narrow chance of reclaiming his former position.

Benkirane’s reelection is not necessarily in the bag. As the last conference in 2008 demonstrated, the complicated voting procedures for the office of secretary-general can lead to last-minute surprises. Candidates must endure careful vetting, in which all aspects of the incumbent secretary-general’s performance during his term are openly debated by party leaders as well as its rank-and-file, and conference attendees can change their initial votes. The defeat of Saad-Eddine El Othmani in 2008—even when all bets pointed to his reelection—is an example of such a surprise. 

A second key item on the conference docket is the amendment of the party’s structural organization—especially at the level of the general secretariat and the national council—to better separate the PJD’s functions and adapt to the new political reality of governing. There are four proposals to amend party bylaws as well as election procedures for the secretary-general, members of the general secretariat, and the members of the seventh conference’s national council. Two models for the general secretariat are also to be discussed; the first being an “expanded general secretariat” that would include (in addition to the 15 members chosen by the secretary-general and confirmed by the conference) PJD government ministers and high-ranking officials. This would broaden the decision-making and consultation processes, but could also complicate and stall resolutions if not backed with an effective executive apparatus. The second format would have a “political general secretariat” comprised of only 15 members, making political decisions and supported by an efficient executive apparatus. It would be headed by one of the members of the general secretariat assisting the secretary-general—which would streamline the decision-making process while simultaneously drawing sharp distinction between government work and internal party affairs.

Additionally, the conference will also highlight changes in the PJD’s political discourse that reveal its transformation from a party once doomed to be in the opposition to one in power. The party’s sixth conference in 2008 adopted the slogan “Democratic Struggle is our Gateway to Reform”—a clear reference to Morocco’s political setbacks following the 2007 elections and the marginalization of the opposition. That year witnessed the dissolution of two Islamist political parties al-Badil al-Hadari and al-Umma, as well as the rise of the PAM under al-Himma. Even though PAM had not existed during the 2007 elections, al-Himma was quickly able to amass the largest parliamentary bloc as deputies defected from various other parties. 

Now that the PJD’s fortunes have changed, the party has abandoned the word struggle in its slogan for partnership: “Effective Partnership for Democracy Building.” The logic behind this shift is dealt with explicitly in a policy paper issued by the conference’s organizing committee (though not yet public): first, the monarchy stopped exerting blatant control over parliament as a direct result of PJD resistance and as a side effect of the Arab Spring—though perhaps not for good. Second, the policy paper attributes the motto change to the PJD’s newfound role of running the government.

The conference also signals a new opportunity for the party to define itself as markedly distinct from its religious parent organization, the Movement for Unity and Reform (MUR), but still taking pride its Islamist identity.  After the officially announced separation in the wake of the Casablanca terrorist attacks of May 2003, both organizations have worked to differentiate between the PJD’s political work and MUR’s religious activism and education. Since the PJD became the governing party, MUR has further sought to distance itself. Answering recent accusations that MUR was blending religion and politics indiscriminately, its leader Mohammed al-Hamadawi remarked that his movement “would not depart from its religious positions nor become a loyalist group that identifies itself with the government and engages fully in its agenda.” 

Finally, the conference this month will highlight a significant change in the PJD’s political base. Although historically, the PJD has been dominated by educated middle-class engineers, doctors, lawyers, and professors, it is increasingly opening up to and incorporating wealthier businessmen. There are signs of a relative breakthrough in the party-business relationship: during its electoral campaign, Justice and Development took the initiative to meet with Mohammed Hourani, director of one of the largest business associations in the country, the Morocco Employers’ Association (CGEM), before any of the other parties did so. Hourani also traveled with Benkirane as part of the official delegation visiting the Davos Economic Forum. In return, CGEM supported the government with 1.2 billion dirhams ($150 million) in funding for welfare programs for poor families. Some businessmen, like the prominent left-wing businessman Karim Tazi, also openly backed the PJD during the recent parliamentary elections; Tazi announced his support for the PJD despite obvious ideological differences. Given that Morocco’s uncompetitive economic system is dominated by companies close to power, this openness to the PJD rests on the belief that economic liberalization will (ultimately) benefit the business class. We should not be surprised to see the interests of this private sphere well-represented at the upcoming conference—with some of its members even given the honor of delivering speeches at the inaugural session. 

Mohammed Masbah is a Ph. D. candidate in sociology at Mohammad V University in Rabat and a researcher at the Moroccan Center for Contemporary Studies. He was recently a visiting researcher at the Carnegie Endowment's Washington office.