Moroccan elections may turn ugly

Moroccan elections may turn ugly
Comment: With fears of political violence on the rise, a series of divisive polls might light the touchpaper on a year of explosive instability, writes George Joffe.
5 min read
13 Aug, 2015
Morocco is preparing for elections amid growing fears of IS attacks [Getty]

In just over a month's time, on September 14, Moroccans will go to the polls to elect new municipal councils, as a fore-runner to legislative elections in a year's time.

The elections are expected to provide some indication as to the likely makeup of a future government, for, in Morocco, the winning party in the poll provides the premier - who then recommends his preferred cabinet to the king.

Since the country uses a proportional electoral system, government is always a coalition, so local elections often give useful hints as to how the electoral wind is blowing.

The electoral cycle

The prime minister, Abdelilah Benkirane, who is also leader of Morocco's Islamist party, Parti de Justice et du Développement (PJD), remains popular among voters, who also still approve of his party - the dominant partner in Morocco's coalition government.

But the public is also aware of the difficulties it has faced in fulfilling its promises. The result is that it is by no means certain that the PJD will stay in power when legislative elections take place next year for the House of Representatives, Morocco's lower parliamentary house.

A hint might be drawn from the spate of lower-level elections that are taking place this year. This year, Morocco will elect new employees' representatives, communal and regional municipalities, governing bodies of the professions, and provincial elections. 

The polls will be capped off by the triennial elections for the country's upper parliamentary assembly, the Assembly of Councillors, where one-third of the membership is replaced every three years.

     One of the reasons for the USFP's poor showing has been the performance of party leader Driss Lachgar

These electoral processes, which should have begun in May, were delayed at the request of Morocco's political parties, because of the complexities of the country's new electoral law.

Now, they have begun in earnest. And the first, the recently held professional elections, may give some idea of what could happen next year. The major oppositional party, the Union Socialiste des Forces Populaires (USFP), saw its support fall by half, while the Parti Authenticité et Modernité (PAM) won four times as many seats as previous, closely followed by the conservative and nationalist Istiqlal.

One of the reasons for the USFP's poor showing has been the performance of party leader Driss Lachgar, in post since 2012. His role has not been uncontested and the party has lost several leading members as a result. He, however, blamed electoral corruption and government interference for the USFP's weak showing.

The Royal Palace's covert role

And he may not be wrong, for the PAM is what in Morocco is called a "pressure cooker" party - a political movement that suddenly emerges in a commanding role on the political scene with the covert support of the Royal Palace.

The party was originally created in 2008 by a former deputy minister of the interior, Fouad Ali al-Hima, a senior advisor to the king. It has been long believed that the palace would like to bring the PAM into government.

Certainly, the current PAM leader, Iliyas al-Omari, seems to think so, as he has embarked on a personal vendetta against the premier.

Istiqlal's success, too, might reflect an official reward - for it was originally part of the ruling coalition, alongside the PJD, Morocco's old Communist Party, the PPS, and the pro-royalist Berber party, the Mouvement Populaire (MP).

In mid-2013, however, Istiqlal left the coalition, claiming it was under-represented in the cabinet, as the personal relationship between its leader, Hamid Chabat, and the premier, had collapsed.

It was replaced in government by a longstanding pro-royalist party, the Mouvement National des Indépendants (MNI), led by the veteran finance minister, Salaheddine Mezouar, who is now foreign minister.

Fear of extremism

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the PJD is gradually being encircled by palace loyalists, ahead of its exclusion from the next government. The king is known to be suspicious of moderate Islamist movements; he was one of the first to congratulate Egyptian President al-Sisi on his coup in 2013 for his "firm and resolute action".

And, in the current climate in Morocco, any movement that could challenge the monarchy, particularly in terms of Islamic precept, is officially greeted with distrust. Although the PJD has gone out of its way to demonstrate its loyalty, doubts still linger and it cannot be too abundant in its support for the non-parliamentary movement, 'Adl wa'l-Ihsan, which stands ready to absorb any discontented supporters.

     French sources have warned that a new movement is threatening to use the upcoming communal elections to start a campaign of violence

Nor are official fears of extremism illusory; French sources have warned that a new movement, Tawhid wa'l-Jihad fi'l-Maghrib al-Aqsa, which has just declared allegiance to the Islamic State group (IS), is threatening to use the upcoming communal elections to start a campaign of violence in Morocco.

It is believed to be targeting the interior minister, Mohamed Hassad, and the justice minister, Mustapha Ramid, who is also a leading member of the PJD.

One reason why they have been picked out is because of their key roles in the country's struggle against extremism. Hassad has claimed that there are 1,350 Moroccans fighting with IS in Iraq and Syria and that at least 30 recruiting networks in Morocco, mainly in the poor northern towns, have been dismantled since February.

The government has also targeted the country's burgeoning Salafi movement, particularly those elements of it in the Mouvement Démocratique et Social (MDS), that endorse jihad. The new anti-terrorism law, passed in January, is primarily directed against them.

If French suspicions are true, then Morocco's electoral cycle might be a rather violent affair.

George Joffe is a research fellow at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge and visiting professor of geography at Kings College, London, specialising in the Middle East.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.