Poll dance: Little uncertainty in Morocco's election

Poll dance: Little uncertainty in Morocco's election
Comment: The first election cycle since a new constitution was agreed appears to have gone without a hitch, writes George Joffe.
5 min read
11 Sep, 2015
Around 15 million Moroccans headed to the polls for the local elections [AFP]
On Friday, September 4, Moroccans voted in local and regional elections, thus beginning an electoral cycle which will culminate next year in legislative elections.

All three polls are important because they form the first complete electoral cycle held under the new constitution introduced in response to widespread public protest in February 2011, in Morocco's own "Awakening".

The local and regional elections are important, too, for the party that heads Morocco’s coalition government, the Justice and Development Party (known by its French acronym PJD), the country's Islamist party which came top in the legislative elections in October 2011.

It has had to take some difficult and unpopular decisions while in power - cutting the budget deficit, reducing consumer subsidies, particularly on fuel, and freezing public sector jobs. It might, therefore, have anticipated that it would lose support in the current electoral round.
     [The PJD] has had to take some difficult and unpopular decisions while in power

The electoral outcome

In the event, any such fears proved to be groundless, for the PJD saw its proportion of the vote increase by 232 per cent, with it winning 5,021 seats in municipalities, compared with only 1,513 in 2009.

It also pulled up the electoral fortunes of its coalition partners with it, despite their fears of being associated with the PJD's supposedly Islamist agenda. The Parti du Progrès et du Socialisme (PPS - Morocco's old communist party) and the Mouvement Populaire (MP) which traditionally caters to Morocco's Berberist minority, both saw their share of the vote increase by 60 and 36 per cent respectively, compared with 2009.

In contrast, Morocco's two traditionally dominant parties, the Union Socialiste des Forces Populaires (USFP) and Istiqlal, the old nationalist party, saw their share of the vote decline by 18 and four per cent respectively.

The USFP, once Morocco's chosen party of government, saw its share of the vote decline to a mere seven percent.

Other royalist parties, such as the Union Constitutionelle (UC), the Parti de l’Authenticité et de Modernisme (PAM) and the Rassemblement National des Indépendants (RNI) saw modest increases in their share of the vote, by 14, 11 and seven percent respectively.

Moroccans, in short, seem to approve of the government's performance - despite its reforms and the fact that it has not been able to get rid of corruption, as the PJD had promised. That bodes well for the PJD in the legislative elections next year.

In reality, of course, things are not quite so simple. The PJD may have seen its share of the vote dramatically increase - but PAM still won the outright majority of seats, with 6,655 in the municipalities - and even Istiqlal outpaced it with 5,106 seats.

Furthermore, the PJD may have won control of urban councils in Rabat, Casablanca, Rabat, Tangier and Marrakech, but it still lacks rural support and, in a country that is dominated by the countryside, that reflects political weakness.

Beyond that, too, there is the unknown implication of the regional elections - run for the first time on the basis of direct election, rather than the indirect elections of the past.

There, the PJD was an outright winner with 25.6 percent of the vote, winning outright control of five of the country's twelve regional councils, with PAM gaining 19.4 percent and Istiqlal 17.5 percent.

     Moroccans, in short, seem to approve of the government's performance - despite its reforms

The regional councils have increased responsibility for regional economic development, so they wield real power, even if their political remit is more limited.

The two elections last Friday were important for another reason; many had expected a very low turnout, as Moroccans expressed their frustration with corruption and difficult post-2011 economic circumstances by abstaining.

Yet this was not the case, as 53.6 percent - 15 million of Morocco's 26 million potential voters - participated, just as many as in 2009.

What does it mean?

The PJD has clearly confounded the expectations of many who anticipated that its leadership of the coalition government would be a trap, set by the palace, to undermine its popularity.

In its place, they argued, the palace sought to install the secular PAM, formed seven years ago by a close friend and counsellor of the king, Foud al-Himma.

Yet the PJD, which supports Morocco's monarchy, has managed to capture urban middle class support, despite its normative Islamist agenda, while PAM's main support comes from the countryside.

     The PJD did well, not because of its specifically Islamic programme but because of its support for Morocco's political system

At the same time, the party has discomforted the nationalist and conservative Istiqlal by winning control of Fez, its traditional bastion, largely because of the hostility expressed by Istiqlal's leader, Hamid Chabat, towards the city.

In short, the PJD did well, not because of its specifically Islamic programme but because of its support for Morocco's political system - unlike its Islamist rival, 'Adl wa'l-Ihsan - and its perceived honesty in government - unlike the more traditional secular movements.

It is, in other words, becoming an effective political party, capable of earning voters' trust, irrespective of their religious inclinations.

In this respect, it resembles Ennahdha in Tunisia which increasingly puts itself forward as a nationalist and conservative political movement, rather than as an Islamist alternative to secular government. It thus reflects, perhaps, the inevitable progression of ostensibly religious movements, when engaged in day-to-day politics, towards a dominant concern with the political process instead.

In that, perhaps, it reflects the earlier experiences of Christian movements in Europe who, too, under the pressure of practical experience of governance, have evolved into the Christian Democrat parties of today.

Perhaps it might also become a paradigm for progressive political evolutions in the region in future as well.

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.