Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies Stanford University


Votes at a school in Marrakesh, Morocco casting ballots in the November 25, 2011 Moroccan parliamentary election
Photo credit: Jean Blondin



December 6, 2011 - CDDRL, FSI Stanford, ARD In the News

While Morocco has not witnessed the same degree of revolutionary upheaval as it's North African neighbors, a constitutional referendum this summer ushered in a series of reforms to address popular pressure from the street. CDDRL Consulting Professor Hicham Ben Abdallah was interviewed in the weekly French magazine, Le Nouvel Observateur where he commented on the recent parliamentary election, the victory of the Justice and Development Party and what this means for the future of democracy in the kingdom.

Moulay Hicham speaks to Morocco's attempt at reform

Interview translated from the original French version as it appeared in Le Nouvel Observateur on November 29, 2011.

By: Sara Daniel 

“Walking without moving: Nothing has changed”

“The essential powers remain in the hands of the King”

An Interview with Moulay Hicham, researcher at Stanford, cousin of the King of Morocco

Did the elections that just took place in Morocco, in which the Islamist party – the Justice and Development Party (PJD) – became the first party of Morocco, inaugurate a new democratic era?

The elections that just took place inaugurated a new cycle in Moroccan politics. They cap a process initiated by the royal speech of March 9, which was a response to the popular pressure from the street. Because contrary to what some claim, there is no Moroccan exception: the Moroccan people want democracy. The Moroccan political regime is an authoritarian one that is being challenged, as have many others in the region, by the Arab Spring.

It is true that the new constitution grants some limited powers to the government. The head of the government is now, unlike before, chosen from the party that came in first in the elections, which today is the PJD.

However, fundamentally nothing has changed. The essential powers remain in the hands of the king. The constitution, which was crafted in a process carefully framed by the palace, was approved in a plebiscite with a score that autocracies are fond of- 98%. It became apparent very quickly that the goal was less to undertake a fundamental reform of the system than to defuse the threat that the Arab Spring posed to the monarchy.

Manipulating the apportionment of electoral districts, refusing to establish an independent electoral commission: the elections were organized so that nothing would change. However, the February 20th protest movement, as well as other opposition forces, were not disarmed. It is clearly apparent to the regime that this simulacrum of democracy will not be enough to appease the discontent.

Do you think the PJD’s victory was organized by the palace to “contain” the democratic demands of the opposition?

The election results reflect the regime’s fear of change.

We always knew that it was the size of the turnout that would really indicate the credibility of the whole process launched by the monarchy since March. Does this explain the very quick announcement of a turnout rate of 45%? In any case, observers [including those of the European Union] carefully noted the absence of a significant part of the voting age population from the electoral lists. Another troubling fact is that the turnout rate went from 21% to 45% percent in a few hours. If one takes into account all the forms of influence exercised by the administration, especially in rural areas, along with all the hype from the establishment media, it seems clear that the real turnout falls under 40%. Even more significant is the 20% of “spoiled” ballots that clearly indicate the population’s lack of interest. For what was supposed to be a founding election the high percentage of nullified ballots, along with the low turnout rate, constitutes a disavowal. We are very far from the numbers of the Tunisian election.

Once again, a soothing electoral recipe has been served up from the political kitchen: a victory for the PJD, offset by the presence of authoritarian “liberal” parties.

Do you think that the PJD will be controlled by the palace?

No, because if it is loyalist, it is also ambitious. Its popularity draws from its appeal to the moralization of public life and from the fact that, until now, it has not been compromised by the management of public affairs. This popularity also derives from its fierce opposition to the “Party of Authenticity and Modernity” created by the palace. This party epitomized privilege, favoritism, and corruption, and was despised by Moroccans. In this respect, the PJD was in harmony with public opinion, and its electoral success constitutes a vote of sanction against the monarchy and its parties.

Thus we have the contours of a new political landscape, dominated by three principal actors: the monarchy, the PJD, and the February 20th movement.

How is the Moroccan political situation going to evolve?

There is evidence that the regime will have a brief respite, due to the difficulties that the February 20th movement has encountered in transforming itself into a mass movement.

However, Moroccan society will not tolerate a protracted political immobility. The movement will have to resume and impose indispensable reforms. It must block the negative effects from the opaque power networks that orbit the palace – the administrative, security, and religious bureaucracies, the economic networks, parties, and unions that are at its disposal, its indentured intellectuals and artists –called the “Makhzen,” which seek to perpetuate the political immobility and the division of the rent spoils.

Why does the opposition movement in Morocco have more difficulty finding its structure than movements in other Arab countries?

The youth and diversity of the February 20th militants are one of its major assets. Many of them are independent, but they also include members of traditional parties that have been co-opted by the Makhzen (PPS, USFP), as well as militants of the outlawed organization Al Adl wa L’Ihsan, which calls for establishing an Islamic caliphate. As a result, many of these militants have one discourse in public, while guarding personal strategies.

And the Makhzen is very clever! Since March, it has worked hard at defusing the pressure brought to bear by the opposition movement. But that doesn’t mean it has been addressing this movement. In reality, its discourse passes over the heads of those who seek reform and speaks to all the forces that fear change and the risks that accompany it.

These are, I believe, the two logics that govern the actions and the discourses of, respectively, the Makhzen galaxy and the February 20th movement. The tension between these two logics in the field of Moroccan politics carries the risk that we will mark time for a while, to the benefit of the enemies of democratization.

Can the PJD succeed?

That certainly depends on its will and ability to break through the locks of the system, and to overcome its own contradictions. Because this party is always swinging between loyalism and populism. The PJD was at first against constitutional reform, before rallying to the new constitution. It has always chosen to play to role of legal opposition, in order to reform the system “from within.” The future will tell if this gambit will succeed, or if it will end up being absorbed by the Makhzen, like the parties that preceded it in power. In that case, we will have a Royal Islamism up against more radical movements. Finally, we should note that this party is very conservative, if not obtuse. This differentiates it starkly from the Turkish and Tunisian Islamic parties to which it is mistakenly compared.

The PJD could turn toward the 20th February movement to widen its room for maneuver with the monarchy. But there are serious reasons to doubt that such a step would be successful. For the PJD is happy to use the opposition movement to scare up some concessions from the palace and the other parties.

In these conditions, there is every indication that the demand for change will become stronger and stronger. The country is witnessing waves of social protest in all its provinces. This will encourage the February 20th movement to overcome its difficulties.

Fortified by its notables, the system is undoubtedly waiting for the Arab Spring – and with it the February 20 movement – to pass like a bad fever. This is an illusion; it is more likely the undemocratic institutions that will pass.




Topics: Corruption | Democracy | Democratization | Elections and electoral reform | Rule of law and corruption | Morocco | Western Europe