Morocco’s Elections: The Palace, the Parliament, and the People

By Catherine Cartier

Catherine Cartier’20 is a guest writer and undeclared double major in Arabic and Political Science

This October 7, the Moroccan government will hold parliamentary elections—the second ballot since the country’s constitutional reforms in 2011. In 2011, a wave of antigovernment movements known as the Arab Spring began in Tunisia and swept across the Arab world. In Morocco, these protests inspired the “20 February” movement, which demanded constitutional reforms and a change in government. While the movement and its demands threatened the Moroccan monarch’s regime, King Mohammed VI managed to maintain his supremacy as the country’s leader by adopting limited reforms aimed at broadening the power of the elected government. The constitutional reforms introduced new formal limits on the King’s power: he must now name a prime minister from the party that receives the most votes and no longer presides over cabinet meetings. The new constitution allows parliament to make laws in most areas, and protects the independent judiciary. These revisions were praised by the US and European countries, allies of Morocco, who view the King as a reformer.

Yet Mohammed VI continues to control Moroccan politics through a circle of political and economic elite, known as the Makhzen. (Nadir Bouhmouch, a young Moroccan filmmaker, explores the omnipresence of the Makhzen in his short film “My Makhzen and Me”). While the King and the Makhzen retain their grip over political and economic power, the Parti de la Justice and du Developpement (PJD, the first Islamist party to take power in Morocco’s history) won the 2011 parliamentary elections. Since 2011, the PJD, headed by Prime Minister Abdel Benikrane, has led the government.

As the election approaches, tensions intensify between the palace and the PJD. On September 18, protests took place in the city of Casablanca, demonstrating against “the Islamicization of society” and the rise of the Islamist PJD leadership; however, confused citizens were reportedly asked by local authorities (controlled by the Ministry of the Interior) to travel to Casablanca to demonstrate. Protesters that were interviewed lacked an understanding of the event’s purpose—some received money for attending, and others were told they were protesting an entirely different issue. The organizers provided the citizens with banners against the PJD, in an attempt to dismantle PJD’s support.

In response, the PJD argued that the protests were supported by organizations which should be neutral in politics, a masked complaint directed at the Ministry of the Interior. Relations between the PJD and the Ministry of the Interior have been tense for some months. While the PJD Justice Minister and the Minister of the Interior typically collaborate in election decisions, the current PJD Justice Minister, Mustapha Ramid, argues that the Minister of the Interior is disrupting this history of power sharing by taking control of decisions regarding the election.

Since its 2011 election, the PJD has remained popular in Morocco by lowering the budget deficit, but still faces criticism for its failure to address weak economic growth and deliver on its promise to fight corruption as it had promised. Internally, the PJD leadership is in crisis: Omar Benhammad and Fatima Nejjar, two top leaders of the religious branch of the PJD, the Unity and Reform Movement (MUR), are currently on trial for attempted corruption and adultery. The PJD have since released a statement denouncing Nejjar and Benhammad’s actions, yet the damage remains; social media users have drawn attention to what they perceive as the hypocrisy of the leaders.

The Special Commission for the Accreditation of Observers of Elections has approved 38 organizations, 32 national and 6 international, to observe the upcoming elections. Contrary to the worldwide trend towards the establishment of independent election management bodies, the Ministry of the Interior maintains authority over elections. In the 2011 elections, voter turnout reached only 28.65% of the population, with only a slight increase over the 2007 (pre-constitutional reform) elections. Despite an attempt to register voters, a lack of voter education and confusion over the registration process challenge democratization in Morocco.

The US views Morocco as an important ally in the MENA region and an example of democratization and modernization. Morocco entered into a free trade agreement with the United States in 2002 as the first Arab nation to do so, and has collaborated with US efforts to address regional security. In 2014, Morocco hosted the International Forum for Human Rights, an event with over 5,000 attendees from 94 countries, which Morocco’s ambassador to the UN described as representative of the country’s human rights achievements. Yet Moroccan human rights organizations, as well as Amnesty International, boycotted the forum, citing increasing restrictions on their activities and meetings. Privacy International’s report, “Their Eyes on Me,” highlighted stories of increasing government surveillance and bans on events organized by NGOs.

While the PJD and the PAM vie for parliamentary power in the upcoming elections, the struggle for meaningful political participation will continue long after the votes are counted. As Bouhmouch comments “the struggle is just beginning, and the Makhzen continues to resist.”

Featured image from the Council on Foreign Relations

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