Islamists' urban victory in Morocco elections surprises many

Islamists' urban victory in Morocco elections surprises many
Analysis: Last week's municipal and regional elections in Morocco, the first to take place since the Arab Spring, left moderate Islamists the victors, writes Taoufik Bouachrine.
3 min read
09 September, 2015
Morocco's Islamists came first in regional elections, scoring well in urban areas [AFP]
The Justice and Development Party, which heads the ruling coalition in Morocco, has achieved a significant political victory by taking the most votes in the kingdom's municipal and regional elections last week.

The JDP, a moderate Islamist party, won nearly 1.6 million votes, compared with 1.2 million votes that went to its main rival, the Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM).

However, the PAM won a large number of municipal seats, coming ahead of the JDP - especially in villages and remote regions, where voting is often influenced by political money and local community leaders.

Yet one interesting outcome of last Friday's vote is that the JDP snatched the majority of seats in the municipal councils of most major cities, including Casablanca, Marrakech, Tangier, Fez, Meknes, Kenitra and Rabat.

This means that the JDP has finally won the confidence of a comfortable majority of the urban middle class, reflecting approval of the four-year-old administration of Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane.
Islamists won the majority of seats in Casablanca, Marrakech, Tangier, Fez, Meknes, Kenitra and Rabat

In truth, this is the first time a Moroccan political party has won a majority of votes in major cities - a fact which has a number of implications.

For instance, the high turnout - 53 percent - in the kingdom's first post-Arab Spring local elections indicates Moroccans are increasingly confident about the political process.

The process was set in motion following the emergence of the February 20 protest movement, and culminated with a new constitution.

Many believe King Mohammed VI had conceded an important part of his powers in the new charter, in favour of the government and parliament.

Public opinion in Morocco, particularly among the middle class, has arguably rewarded the JDP-led government for the bold reforms it has carried out, and for the flexibility shown by the prime minister in governing the country, by bringing in both leftists and liberals to his coalition government.

On the other hand, the urban middle class seems to have punished the opposition parties, which tried to drag the country into a bitter ideological struggle aimed against the JDP.

Opposition forces did try to emphasise contentious, divisive issues involving religion, secularism, modernism and conservatism - instead of focusing on economic programmes, social platforms or public policies.

Furthermore, the JDP's 1.6 million votes compares favourably with the 700,000 votes it won in the last municipal elections in 2009. In other words, the JDP has doubled its popular base in the space of only six years.

While the JDP had come on top in the general election in 2011, winning 107 of 395 seats in parliament, that victory was probably propelled by the momentum of the Arab Spring wave of protests across the region.
Public opinion in Morocco has rewarded the JDP government for the reforms it has carried out

The context is different today, however. Islamists have failed in many Arab countries, and the Arab Spring has become an Authoritarian Autumn - of sorts.

Nevertheless, Morocco's moderate Islamists seem to have managed to keep their popularity - and coexist with the "deep state".

The explanation could lie in the Islamists' gradual approach to reform, their aversion to religious and ideological confrontations, their focus on economic and social reform and their separation of religious preaching from political action.

Ultimately, the results of September 4's vote were significant and carry important implications for Morocco's democratic transition and upcoming general election.