Parliamentary elections were held in Morocco on October 7, 2016. All 395 seats in the House of Representatives (Chambre des représentants, ﻣﺠﻠﺲ ﺍﻟﻨﻮﺍﺏ, ⴰⴳⵔⴰⵡ ⵏ ⵉⵎⴰⵔⴰⵢⴻⵏ), the lower house of the Moroccan Parliament, were up for re-election.
Morocco’s legislature is bicameral. The lower house is the House of Representatives, directly elected for a five year term, although the King has the power to dissolve it, pretty much at will. It has a total of 395 members, 305 of which are elected in 92 multi-member constituencies (electing between 2 and 6 members) using closed party list proportional representation (no panachage or preferential voting), largest remainder method. There is a 3% (previously 6%) threshold at the constituency level, although given the low district magnitude, I’m not sure if this actually means anything. The constituencies are set by ministerial decree, with each province or préfecture (the second-level administrative divisions, prefectures are in urban areas) forming a constituency but with most of the large prefectures divided into several constituencies (Casablanca has 8, Rabat has 2, Salé has 3 etc.). Because each constituency is guaranteed at least two seats, the less populated (rural) provinces tend to be over-represented, often at the expense of the urban, densely populated prefectures. By way of example, the remote provinces of Tarfaya (2014 pop: 13,082) and Aousserd (pop: 16,190) have one representative for 6,500 and 8,000 inhabitants respectively. In the prefecture of Tanger-Assilah (pop: 1 million), which elects just five members, one member represents over 210,000 people. Casablanca elects 26 representatives in 8 constituencies, with each representing about 130,000 people. The remaining 90 seats are reserved for women (60) and ‘young’ men (and, now, women) under 40 (30), elected on a national list with a 3% threshold.
The upper house is the House of Councillors, which has 120 indirectly elected members serving six year terms. Three fifths represent local governments, a third among them from the regional councils and the rest of them from all other levels (provinces, prefectures and communes). Two fifths are basically corporatist representatives, elected by professional chambers, employers’ organizations and employees’ representatives. Unsurprisingly, the upper house (and, before 1996, the indirectly selected members of the unicameral house) has always been dominated by various pro-monarchy parties or independents. Its powers have gradually decreased with each successive constitution.
Morocco is, on paper, a constitutional monarchy albeit one in which the monarch retains a great deal of political, economic and religious power either through the word of the constitution or the actual workings of government. Morocco has been moving, ever so slowly, towards a more democratic political system, most notably with the adoption of a new constitution in 2011 which imposed a few limitations on monarchical power, strengthened the powers of Parliament (but reduced those of the unelected upper house), lengthened the list of fundamental rights, created a whole bunch of new ‘independent’ institutions to protect human rights and the like, decentralized power with the creation of directly-elected regional councils and made Tamazight (Berber) an official language.
Nevertheless, the King, also Commander of the Faithful (Amir Al Mouminine), has a whole load of titles (Supreme Representative, Symbol of the unity of the Nation, Guarantor of the permanence and of the continuity of the State and Supreme Arbiter between the institutions, Guarantor of the country’s Independence), presides the council of ministers, the superior council of the Ulema, the superior security council and the superior council of the judiciary. He is also commander in chief of the armed forces, signs and ratifies treaties (although more and more of them must now be approved by law), may rule by decree, may dissolve one or both houses of Parliament (but after consulting the prime minister, presidents of both houses and the Constitutional Council), promulgates laws and may force a new reading of a law by Parliament.
One of the main changes of the 2011 constitution is that the king must now appoint the prime minister from the political party which placed first in the parliamentary (lower house) elections, which significantly reduces the king’s ability to play as power broker in government formations, or to appoint his own favourites as prime minister rather than party politicians. The king appoints cabinet ministers, on the ‘proposal of the prime minister’, although the new constitution also formally gave the prime minister the possibility to request that the king dismiss one or more ministers. The new government must obtain the confidence of the lower house upon presenting its agenda. It may seek a confidence vote. A fifth (reduced from a fourth) of members of the lower house may table a motion of no-confidence, which is adopted by an absolute majority of members. The 2011 constitution removed the upper house’s ability to remove the government through a non-confidence vote (which required a two-thirds majority).
In the actual practice, the king sets much of the important public policy or at least provides a general macroeconomic direction or broad outline, leaving the governments to translate that into legislation and allowing them to handle lesser issues. There are certain policy domains which remain very clearly the preserve of the king: the monarchy, Islam, Western Sahara, constitutional reform, the military and, to a lesser extent, elections. Unsurprisingly, the king is intent on leaving his mark on the country by launching or sponsoring large programs or projects of various kind. Early in his reign, King Mohammed VI launched a ‘National Initiative for Human Development’, a strategy to reduce poverty and created an Equity and Reconciliation Commission (IER) to study the ‘years of lead’ period of repression (under King Hassan II). More recently, Mohammed VI has promoted foreign investment in Morocco through large, lavish infrastructure projects (Tanger Med cargo port, Casablanca Finance City, high speed rail) and launched an ambitious tourism strategy (Plan Azur).
Within the cabinet, there are several portfolios called ‘sovereign ministries’ in academic literature, largely those dealing with issues falling within Crown prerogative. Typically, the ministries of the interior, habous and religious affairs and defence (or at least the deputy minister slot) are held by non-partisan technocrats. The General Secretariat of Government, which coordinates the preparation of bills and decrees and provides legal advice, is also traditionally held by a royal appointee.
Despite the flowery language of the 2011 constitution, Morocco’s poor record on human rights and civil liberties means that it is not a democracy. A few relevant excerpts from the 2016 Freedom in the World report:
- Although the independent press enjoys a significant degree of freedom when reporting on economic and social policies, the authorities use an array of financial and legal mechanisms to punish critical journalists, particularly those who focus on the king, his family, the status of Western Sahara, or Islam.
- Freedom of assembly is not always respected, though frequent demonstrations by unemployed graduates and unions are generally tolerated. Although such protests often occur without incident, activists say they are harassed outside of public events.
- In 2015, authorities increased pressure on civil society organizations critical of the government, banning a number of their activities, demonstrations, and other projects.
- The judiciary is not independent of the palace, and the courts are regularly used to punish government opponents.
- Arbitrary arrest and torture still occur. Investigations by rights advocates in 2015 revealed that torture remains widespread among Moroccan security forces.
- The Moroccan LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community faces harsh discrimination.
- Freedoms of movement, employment, and education are guaranteed by law in Morocco, but poor economic conditions and corruption limit these freedoms in practice.
The status of Western Sahara is disputed, stuck in a stalemate since 1991. Two-thirds of the territory, including the quasi-entirety of the coastline and all major cities (Laayoune and Dakhla), is controlled by Morocco, which considers the entire region to be an integral part of the kingdom and has, on paper, the same political rights as any other part of Morocco. The remaining third of the territory, inhospitable arid desert bordering Algeria and Mauritania, is controlled by the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) ruled by the separatist Polisario Front. The de facto capital of the SADR is Tindouf (Algeria), a massive Sahrawi refugee camp. The SADR’s main foreign backer is Algeria, whose border with Morocco remains closed and unlikely to reopen anytime soon. Morocco’s main foreign backer is France. The basis of the continued crisis is the organization of a self-determination referendum, promised in the 1991 cease-fire between Morocco and the Polisario and on the table ever since Spain withdrew from its Saharan colony in 1975. Morocco refuses the possibility of Sahrawi independence, while the Polisario insists that independence be an option in any referendum (in which it would like the franchise to be limited). Freedom of the press, assembly and association are all even more severely restricted in Western Sahara than in Morocco, with any expression of sympathy or support for independence strictly forbidden. There have also been plenty of reports of abuses by the Polisario in SADR territory.
In the 1970s, King Hassan II’s repression of opponents had failed in its objectives while his attempts to woo the traditional opposition parties had been rebuffed, placing the king and the country in a political impasse. In 1975, the king found an escape valve in the Western Sahara, where Spanish colonial rule was coming apart. Morocco had claimed the territory as an historic and integral part of the nation since independence, and large demonstrations demanded the ‘return of the Sahara’ in 1974. A UN mission concluded that Sahrawis favoured independence, and in October 1975, the ICJ ruled that while there existed historical ties with Morocco, Western Sahara had a right to self-determination. The Polisario Front, founded in 1973, had been fighting against Spain and was found by the UN mission to command ‘overwhelming’ support among the local population. Hassan II, determined not to lose a potentially advantageous situation, defied the ICJ’s ruling by sending troops across the border and, in November 1975, calling on a massive popular ‘Green March’ to pressure Spain into relinquishing its colony to Morocco (rather than pressuring for a referendum). Between 350,000 and 520,000 participated in the Green March, which pushed Spain (already facing severe domestic turmoil) to abandon ship and divide sovereignty between Morocco and Mauritania. Western Sahara quickly turned into something of a nightmare for Morocco. In 1976, the Polisario declared the independence of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and began a guerrilla war against Morocco and Mauritania, which pushed the latter to withdraw from the territory in 1979. The armed conflict with Morocco ended in a cease-fire under UN monitoring in 1991, with undefined promises for a referendum on self-determination.
Parties and Issues
Since the 1950s and more particularly since the 1980s, the Moroccan monarchy has deliberately pursued a “divide and conquer” strategy with regards to political parties, seeking to keep the party system weak and fragmented so as to prevent any one party from overshadowing the monarchy or gaining sufficient political-electoral strength and legitimacy to directly challenge the monarchy. This has involved playing parties off against one another, facilitating the fragmentation of the party system (by ‘encouraging’ splits in parties), directly intervening by creating various “King’s friends” parties or co-opting parties reputed to be in opposition. This strategy has been remarkably successful.
The Arabic term makhzen, which means ‘warehouse’ in Maghrebi Arabic, nebulously refers to the monarchy and its apparel of notables, political bosses, military personnel, intelligence services, landowners, bureaucrats and other well-connected establishment figures. The makhzen does not really exist as an institution, or at least doesn’t exist in the way that, say, a government or public institution does, but it is very widely used to refer to the monarchy and its political activities.
The Moroccan party system is increasingly based around personalities rather than parties, and, outside of a few parties, ideology is rather unimportant.
Parti de la justice et du développement (Justice and Development Party, PJD): The main (moderate) Islamist party and Morocco’s senior governing party, since 2011. The Islamist movement in controlled politics emerged in the late 1990s. In the 1970s, the main Islamist group in the country was the violent, extremist and clandestine Chabiba Islamiya, which had engaged in terrorism during the 1970s. A moderate ‘legalist’ faction (including current PM Abdelillah Benkirane) emerged from this group, which split from it to establish a number of Islamic movements seeking to act within legal boundaries and ensuring the palace of their attachment to the monarchy. Benkirane’s al-Islah wal-Tajdid were permitted to integrate the ranks of a minor, dormant party, the Mouvement populaire démocratique et constitutionnel (MPDC), founded by old-timer Abdelkrim El Khatib in the 1960s as a splinter faction of another party. El Khatib, in charge of organizing the Moroccan Islamic fighters who went to support the mujahideen in Afghanistan, had been the Islamists’ contact with the regime.
The MPDC won 9 seats in 1997, and soon thereafter, the new Islamist entrants gained control of the party and renamed it PJD. In parallel, other moderate Islamist groups acting in legality joined with Benkirane’s movement to create the Mouvement Unité et Réforme (MUR), initially tied to the PJD and supposed to act as a collective of various Islamic charities and social organizations, meant to rival Al Adl Wal Ihsane, a more radical (without being extremist and rejecting violence) Islamist group led by Abdessalam Yassine (until his death in 2012) and operating in the limbo between legality and repression.
In 2002, the PJD and the makhzen struck a deal, in which the PJD agreed to step aside in a number of constituency in exchange for the right to participate in the elections. The PJD was therefore allowed to participate in the political system, while the palace ‘prevented another Algeria’. Basically, since the Gulf War, King Hassan II and later Mohammed VI needed to shore up their religious legitimacy, and they found in the PJD an Islamist party (which they judged, even if they didn’t like it, to be a necessary player) which wasn’t anti-system with which they could bargain and which was willing to play along with them. In 2002, even with its size limited, the PJD won 42 seats, becoming the third largest party (the extreme fragmentation of the party system that year makes it rather likely that the PJD would have won if they had run everywhere). After the 2003 Casablanca terrorist bombings, the PJD, which had been accused by secular critics of laying the ideological groundwork for the attacks (some even called for its banning), moved away from the controversial Islamist moralizing, dropped most references to sharia law, ‘differentiated’ itself from the MUR (which, from ‘civil society’, took over the more explicitly religious and moralizing discourses) and discovered new catchphrases with which to appeal to a broader base (democratization, corruption, unemployment, poverty, illiteracy etc.). The religious stuff was restated in more covert terminology, for example talk about the ‘Islamic identity’ of Morocco or ‘values’, and redefining the PJD as a party with an “Islamic frame of reference”.
In 2007, the PJD won 46 seats (second place), a very modest and underwhelming increase on the previous election, when most observers had been expecting the PJD to win fairly convincingly. The PJD thus remained out of government, although still enough of a ‘threat’ for the makhzen to try to undercut its support, which it attempted to do through the creation of the Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM), selective application of anti-corruption legislation (targeting PJD local officials) and modification of electoral laws prior to the 2009 local elections. The PJD is at a disadvantage in local elections because of the sheer (over-represented) weight of rural municipalities, controlled as they are by pro-monarchy notables and political bosses affiliated with the other ‘traditional’ parties. In the 2009 local elections, the PJD won only 5.5% of local government seats, in fifth place, with the PAM in first place. The PJD had strong performances in urban areas, its traditional base of support, like in Casablanca, Rabat, Salé and Tangiers, but winners in Moroccan local elections are determined by narrative more than statistics, and the narrative was that the PJD had lost. The PAM, and others, used a mix of dirty tricks and traditional politicking to botch the PJD’s coalition-building efforts, notably in Casablanca and Tangiers.
The PJD played its cards well during the Arab Spring-inspired February 20, 2011 protests for democratic change in Morocco, without participating in them. It backed the protesters’ basic demands for ‘change’, but stressed that would only be realistic by working within the regime, and so it gave support to King Mohammed VI’s constitutional change, which was endorsed by voters in July 2011 (which saw very high turnout of 75.5% and 98% approval, at least that’s what we’re told to believe). The PJD, on a platform which sidestepped Islamism in favour of economic development, jobs and fighting corruption, won the 2011 elections – held ahead of schedule – with 27% of the votes and 107 seats. Benkirane became Prime Minister, the first Islamist head of government in Morocco. Initially, his government included the PJD, the conservative Istiqlal, the MP and small ‘left-wing’ PPS with outside support from most of the 1/2 seat parties. In July 2013, the Istiqlal party withdrew from government after a cabinet crisis which had been brewing for two months. Reduced to a minority, Benkirane formed a new government, replacing the Istiqlal with the RNI.
The government’s record has been mixed, at best. Morocco’s macroeconomic outlook is positive, although less so in 2016 than in previous years. In 2015, GDP growth was 4.5%, pushed by strong growth in its agricultural sector. However, in 2016, because of a drought in fall 2015, agricultural exports are expected to shrink by 9.5% and overall GDP growth will decelerate to 1.5%. The good performance of newly developed industries (automobile, aeronautics and electronics) and the expansion of Moroccan companies in Western Africa hold potential for Morocco to boost its position in international markets. King Mohammed VI, who is also the country’s main businessman and landowner, has capitalized on Morocco’s political stability to attract European auto and aeronautics manufacturers (Renault). Morocco has also been investing millions in new infrastructure projects, from a fancy business city (Casablanca Finance City), a high-speed rail line from Tangiers to Kénitra (initially, later, perhaps, to Casablanca) to the largest solar plant in the world. Steady income growth has reduced the poverty rate, which stands between 9 and 15% today depending on metrics. Morocco ranks 126th on the Human Development Index (HDI), the lowest in North Africa (and, notably, lower than Iraq).
The government eliminated costly and controversial subsidies on gasoline and diesel (most subsidies, it was said, were actually benefiting the wealthiest), aiming to replace them with targeted direct cash grants to vulnerable sectors (so far, widows). With the subsidies reform and other fiscal consolidation efforts, the budget deficit has been reduced from 5.2% of GDP (2013) to a forecast 3.5% (2016), projected to shrink further to 2.8% in 2018. Low oil prices have greatly reduced the current account deficit, from 9.3% of GDP in 2012 to just 1.2% this year. The unemployment rate, however, has hovered between 9 and 10% in recent years, currently standing at 10%. The employment rate is low (47%), youth unemployment is high (39%) and women’s participation in the labour force remains very low (27%).
The PJD made corruption one of its main priorities in 2011, but, in power, its record on corruption is underwhelming. In no small part because the makhzen and King Mohammed VI’s entourage, said to be incredibly corrupt, resisted even timid moves to reduce corruption. In 2011, the new government had published a list of corrupt public figures who had benefited from unexplained transportation licenses. In 2012, the PJD in Parliament claimed that the finance minister in the previous government had embezzled nearly $50,000 over and above his monthly salary, but King Mohammed VI himself stepped in and asked the PJD not to provoke useless polemics. In 2015, cabinet defeated a parliamentary proposal to strengthen the powers of the main anti-corruption body, the Central Authority for the Prevention of Corruption (ICPC). However, the ICPC later adopted a comprehensive anti-corruption strategy. Beyond the government, few questions are allowed to be asked about the necessity for a high speed rail line (critics say the billions spent on that would be much more useful in fighting poverty, in a country where poverty remains fairly high) or what’s happening with royal projects like the Plan Azur, a plan designed to boost tourism which doesn’t seem to be reporting much success. Patronage, nepotism and wasta (who you know) remain deeply ingrained at all levels of public administration; bureaucracy is inefficient; the judiciary is not independent and perceived as being corrupt. Morocco ranks 88 out of 167 on the Corruption Perceptions Index, on par with Algeria and Egypt.
Constitutional and governmental promises to expand press freedom have amounted to little. The 2015 Freedom of the Press report rated Morocco’s press as ‘not free’. In general terms, three topics are off-limits for the media: the monarchy, Islam and Western Sahara. Criticism of the first two are banned by law, and critical coverage of the royal family and Western Sahara is effectively banned. Journalists, including some foreign journalists, who do not play by the rules are harassed. I n 2013, Ali Anouzla, editor of a news website, was arresting for sharing a link to a YouTube video allegedly from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb which was directly critical of King Mohammed VI. His supporters and human rights groups claimed that his arrest was revenge for having broken a politically damaging story about King Mohammed VI’s accidental pardon of a Spanish paedophile earlier in 2013. In 2014, Anouzla received a fine and one month suspended sentence. In 2015, Hicham Mansouri, a project manager for an investigative journalism NGO, was arrested and charged with committing adultery, and later received a prison sentence of 10 months and a hefty fine of $4,100. In June 2015, a private news website was fined more than $50,000 for publishing a story accusing the king’s private secretary of corruption; another journalist was given a four-month suspended prison sentence and a $10,000 fine on criminal defamation charges for reporting on a story about the death of an activist in police custody amidst claims of custodial torture.
Morocco has an increasingly vibrant protest culture, in both urban and rural areas, where discontent is expressed through sit-ins, demonstrations or even violent clashes with law enforcement. Grievances include high unemployment, workers’ rights, recognition for private universities’ degrees, wages, corruption and demands for further democratization. These protests generally occur without incidents. The government intermittently goes after civil society organizations.
The PJD-led government’s stances on women’s rights is vague, often woefully unimpressive. Prime Minister Benkirane publicly lamented the loss of traditional values in Morocco, and their replacement by Western/European culture. He also holds conservative, traditionalist views on women’s role in society – he faulted women for working and not spending time with their children and family, and said that the ‘sacred role’ of the housewife must be recognized. Women’s groups, supported by the opposition parties, demonstrated against Benkirane’s views on women and the government’s failure to abide by constitutional provisions on gender equality in 2014 and 2015. In July 2015, an increase in sexual violence and attacks on women sparked some protests.
The PJD’s platform focused on continuing the reforms the party had begun since 2011, all in keeping with the party’s “Islamic referential”, which has been how the party has described itself for a number of years. The PJD continued to claim that it represents a moderate, open and tolerant version of political Islam, but those claims were belied by the party’s nomination of Hammad El Kabbaj, a Salafist preacher, as its lead candidate in the constituency of Marrakech-Guéliz Nakhil. Although described as anti-violence, anti-ISIS and a “Moroccan Salafist” rather than a “Wahhabi Salafist”, El Kabbaj was nonetheless known for his anti-Semitic views (for posting on Facebook a hadith about ‘killing’ Jews) and having issued a fatwa permitting marriage with nine year old girls. In mid-September, the wali of Marrakech (the royally-appointed representative of the central government in regions) invalidated El Kabbaj’s candidacy on the grounds that he had “expressed positions against the basic principles of democracy”. El Kabbaj’s abortive candidacy came as a surprise to most, and many felt that it was a move by the PJD to shore up its grassroots pious Islamist support after a string of embarrassing scandals hit the party: sexual harassment, a member arrested with three tonnes of cannabis and, in August, two vice-presidents of the MUR were caught by the police in an “intimate position” and arrested on suspicions of an extramarital affair (which is illegal in Morocco).
During the campaign, the PJD popularized the word tahakoum, an Arabic word which has been roughly translated (figuratively) to mean ‘domination’, ‘hegemony’ or ‘stranglehold’. The PJD, perhaps to deflect attention from its own failings, claimed that corrupt and nefarious ‘dark forces’ within the political institutions were undermining democracy; a very thinly veiled jab at the PJD’s main rival, the Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM), widely seen as a creation of the makhzen. The PJD’s opponents claimed that the idea of tahakoum is nothing more than a marketing gimmick by the party to discredit its opponents. More radical leftist opponents of the regime, like Nabila Mounib, claimed that the entire monarchical institution is the real power behind tahakoum.
Parti authenticité et modernité (Authenticity and Modernity Party, PAM): The awkwardly named party is the latest in a series of parties created by the makhzen to challenge opposition forces. The PAM was founded in 2008 by Fouad Ali El Himma, widely described as one of King Mohammed VI’s closest friends and confidantes. Between 2002 and 2007, he was the senior bureaucrat in the Ministry of the Interior, an important cabinet portfolio (notably controlling elections and security forces) which the palace has always kept for itself. Meant to provide a counterweight to the growing PJD, the PAM was created through the merger of five small parties and grew through floor-crossing, despite the practice being banned.
Matters appeared to be going well judging by the results of the 2009 local elections, in which the PAM polled the most votes and won the most seats (22%). The party was (and still is) most successful in rural areas, historically the strongholds of pro-monarchy notables and political bosses, although its success in 2009 extended to more urbanized regions and it was able to use its clout and connections to manipulate its way into local coalitions excluding the PJD.
However, the PAM and Fouad Ali El Himma, perceived as the regime’s anointed party and symbols of the corrupt establishment, were the primary target of the February 20 protesters’ ire, certainly more so than the king (in most cases). The PAM took time to understand what was going on, but eventually El Himma withdrew himself from active politics and did not seek reelection to Parliament before resigning from the party leadership altogether. Not longer after the election, El Himma became a royal adviser to Mohammed VI, retaining his political influence without participation in party politics. Ahead of the fall 2011 elections, the PAM allied with other, older palace-created parties (UC, RNI), pro-makhzen parties (MP) and miscellaneous outcasts (smaller ‘socialist’ or Islamist parties) in an ‘Alliance for Democracy’, to challenge the PJD and the traditional opposition forces (Istiqlal and socialist USFP). The PAM was one of the most unambiguously anti-Islamist (anti-PJD) voices in the campaign, but the Arab Spring had changed matters. The party ended up with 12% and 47 seats, placing fourth.
Despite its unimpressive result in 2011, the PAM, perhaps pushed along by the palace, made its mark as the most coherent and vocal opponent of the PJD’s government. In 2015, the PAM placed first in the municipal elections with 21%, because of its weight in small rural municipalities, although the PJD swept – sometimes with absolute majorities – the municipal councils of Morocco’s largest cities. It was second to the PJD in regional elections, with 19% and 132 of the 678 seats. Through alliances with other parties, the PAM won the regional presidencies of five regions, including Tanger-Tétouan-Al Hoceïma with Ilyas El Omari and Casablanca-Settat with party secretary-general Mustapha Bakkoury. The PJD won just two regional presidencies.
In 2016, Ilyas El Omari, the regional president of Tanger-Tétouan-Al Hoceïma, officially became PAM leader. El Omari is also the new owner of a media group which owns 6 newspapers and a printing press, acquired in 2015. In the 1980s, El Omari was a student dissident during a period of repression under King Hassan II, living for a few years as a fugitive before receiving a royal pardon in 1989. Fast forward to the early 2000s, and El Omari gained political importance through his friendship with El Himma, “the king’s friend”, and was one of the PAM’s founding members in 2008. El Omari says that he hasn’t spoken to El Himma in a few years, but respects him tremendously. El Omari is now Benkirane’s main rival, often the target of Benkirane’s attacks. In 2011, Benkirane called El Omari a ‘bandit’; more recently, he called him the “Moroccan Ben Ali”.
The PAM was the PJD’s primary rival in the 2016 campaign, and the two parties traded barbs over the course of the campaign, with the PAM calling the PJD government “catastrophic” and the PJD equating the PAM to a natural disaster like a tsunami or volcanic eruption (with less hyperbole, the PJD considers the PAM an incoherent hodgepodge of opportunists and misfits). The PAM protested against the “Islamization” of the country, organizing a demonstration against Islamization in Casablanca in September 2016 (critics said that the marchers, brought down by the PAM, didn’t know what they were protesting against). The PAM platform, beyond the grandiloquent valence issues (economic growth, prosperity etc.), proposed to reform the family code (Mudawana) to increase women’s rights and gender equality.
Parti de l’Istiqlal (Istiqlal Party or Independence Party, PI): The conservative and nationalist Istiqlal Party is Morocco’s oldest party, founded in 1943 (although it traces its roots to 1934). The Istiqlal Party, led by Allal El Fassi and Ahmed Balafrej, supported Morocco’s independence from French and Spanish ‘protection’, and most of the party, at the outset, supported the idea of ‘Greater Morocco’, an irredentist dream laying claim to Western Sahara (then a Spanish colony), all of Mauritania, the western half of the Algerian Sahara and northwestern Mali (Timbuktu).
Moroccan independence in 1956 yielded two victors – King Mohammed V and the Istiqlal Party. Both fought for the upper hand in the new system, although the King, imbued with religious legitimacy as Commander of the Faithful (and widespread popularity for his role in resisting late French rule), arrived with a built-in advantage. The Istiqlal Party, the dominant political force in the early governments, was primarily concerned with maintaining its power and was willing to do whatever it took – repression included – to do so. The king, somewhat ironically, supported greater political competition and a multi-party systemto weaken the PI’s power. The PI was gradually debilitated by internal dissidence. In 1957, a largely rural sector of the predominantly urban upper-class party split from the PI to create the rural-oriented Popular Movement (MP), which was only granted legal recognition in 1959. In 1958, the party’s left-wing led by Mehdi Ben Barka and the Union marocaine du travail (UMT) trade union split from the party, with Mohammed V’s blessing – he installed Abdallah Ibrahim, from the Istiqlal’s left, as prime minister in 1958, successfully dividing the PI (thereafter, El Fassi and Balafrej retired from the public spotlight) and keeping the radical Ben Barka from power. The PI left created the National Union of Popular Forces (UNFP) in 1959.
By 1958, King Mohammed V had full control of the political system (in 1960, he made himself prime minister), and the PI (and UNFP) pushed into opposition to the makhzen. A convoluted period of turmoil followed, as King Hassan II (1961-1999) tried his hand at various options – direct rule (1961-1963, 1965-1967), repression (the ‘years of lead’, which continued through the 1990s), constitutional provisions for (controlled) multi-party democracy and elections (never free and fair, and won by the makhzen‘s candidates) – all in a context of economic crisis and mounting social unrest, as well as two coup attempts. The PI lost the first election (in 1962), to the FDIC, the first in a string of “King’s friend” monarchical parties, but did obtain 28% of the seats (another 20% of seats for the UNFP embarrassingly held the regime’s party to under 50%). The PI and an increasingly radicalized UNFP opposed the 1970 and 1972 constitutions, a setback from the 1962 constitution in democratic terms, and formed a coalition, the Kutla al-Wataniya, which boycotted the 1970 elections.
The PI participated in the 1977 elections, despite the system being rigged and the odds stacked against them, and won 25% of the direct seats (176 of the 264 seats were directly elected, the rest were indirectly appointed much like the upper house is today, and the PI was at a severe disadvantage there). Pro-monarchy independents won an absolute majority. Hassan II invited the PI and the Popular Union of Socialist Forces (USFP) to join the government, an offer which the PI accepted. The PI, still subject to official harassment, placed fifth in terms of direct seats in the fraudulent 1984 elections, taking just 12% of the directly-elected seats. Shortly thereafter, the PI again withdrew from the government, and attempts were made to revive the Kutla with the USFP and the Party for Progress and Socialism (PPS), although disagreements between and within the parties as to the position to adopt vis-à-vis the regime and institutional reform delayed the Kutla‘s recreation until 1989. Once again, however, constitutional reform in 1992 came ‘imposed’ from above, and despite certain improvements, the new constitution promulgated by referendum in 1992 still fell far short of basic democratic principles. On those grounds, the PI and USFP boycotted the 1992 constitutional referendum, and claimed the result (99.9% in favour, 97% turnout) had been manipulated by the regime. With the two main opposition parties questioning its legitimacy, the 1992 constitution was weakened from the get-go, and Hassan II was stuck with a recalcitrant opposition. Ultimately, Hassan II decided to continued the controlled liberalization of the regime, albeit always with the end goal of retaining regal powers intact.
In the 1993 elections, the PI won 12% of the vote and 43 of the 222 direct seats, coming second behind its coalition partner, the USFP, which placed first overall – a sign that the elections were cleaner than previous ones, despite the opposition’s claims of fraud and manipulation. As in 1984, however, the Kutla performed poorly in the election for indirect seats, although overall they still emerged as the singe largest bloc in Parliament with 32% of the seats. The Kutla, particularly the USFP, was divided over the path it should follow in the aftermath of the 1993 election, but both parties ultimately refused Hassan II’s offer to enter government. The liberalization of the regime continued under the independent governor of Prime Minister Abdellatif Filali (1994-1998).
In 1996, another constitution was adopted by referendum which, this time, the PI and USFP supported despite some disappointments over the contents of the new document. The 1996 constitution notably re-created the upper house, abolished in 1970, which meant that governments would now be formed on the basis of strength in the lower house. However, the constitution still limited the government’s effective power to govern. In the 1997 election, won by the USFP, the PI placed fifth in terms of seats, with 32 of the House’s 325 seats, and 13.2% of the vote. In February 1998, King Hassan II appointed the USFP’s leader Abderrahmane Youssoufi as prime minister, with a coalition including the PI, PPS and RNI, forming a landmark gouvernement d’alternance. With the king having successfully convinced the USFP to form government, the PI had no choice but to follow suit, something which undoubtedly was also part of Hassan II’s calculations – by working together, the two allies would have a falling out, and/or, by cooperating with the regime, the PI (and USFP) would lose much of their credibility. In good part, both of those things were achieved.
In the 2002 elections, the first held under a list PR system (in the multi-member constituencies) rather than FPTP and the first with the ‘national lists’ for women, the PI performed well, winning a total of 48 seats, placing second with only two seats fewer than the USFP. To the surprise of observers and disappointment of party politicians, Mohammed VI appointed a technocrat, Driss Jettou, as the new prime minister (with a government similar to the Youssoufi government – with the Kutla, RNI and MP). Jettou’s appointment was seen, at the time, as a setback in the democratization process.
The Istiqlal won the 2007 election, to most people’s surprise (the PJD, as noted above, had been judged to be the favourite). After 2002, Mohammed VI could no longer afford to appoint an ‘independent technocrat’ over a party politician as prime minister, and was expected to follow the (then) unwritten rule of choosing among the first placed party. However, that the PI rather than the PJD placed first made things much less complicated and risky for the king, so by appointing the PI’s Abbas El Fassi as prime minister, Mohammed VI had a win-win: he conformed to ‘democratic expectations’ and still avoided having to appoint an Islamist prime minister. With the exception of the MP (which joined the coalition in 2009 anyway), the ‘new’ government was made up of the same parties as the outgoing one (PI, USFP, PPS and RNI). El Fassi’s government was unremarkable and unmemorable (as most previous governments had been), being rather irrelevant during the February 20 protests and very clearly absent from the 2011 constitutional reform, guided by the monarch rather than by the government (as had been the case, of course, for all previous constitutional reforms).
The PI won 60 seats in the 2011 election, a gain of 8 seats from the previous election, but it now placed second behind the victorious Islamist PJD. For the time being, however, Abbas El Fassi’s party remained in the governing coalition, along with the PPS and MP. It was the second largest party behind the PJD with six ministers, including the ministry of the economy and finance. In September 2012, Abdelhamid Chabat, the mayor of Fès (since 2003) and secretary-general of the General Union of Moroccan Workers (UGTM) trade union, was elected leader of the Istiqlal, defeating Abdelouahed El Fassi, the son of iconic former party leader and nationalist hero Allal El Fassi. Some suspect that the palace intervened in the PI’s congress to favour Chabat, who criticized the government’s performance. In May 2013, the PI’s national council voted to withdraw from the coalition. Mohammed VI, who was in France at the time, obtained a ‘postponement’ of this decision from the party, but in July, five of the PI’s six ministers officially handed their resignations (the rebel was education minister Mohamed Louafa). Left without a parliamentary majority, Benkirane formed a new government, in October 2013, with the RNI replacing the PI.
Chabat is an odd and eccentric man, who appears to have no filters. In 2014, he accused Benkirane to have ties with ISIS but also have to have secretly cooperated with Israeli intelligence services. In 2011, Chabat explained how ‘colonialism’ now drew its supremacy with “ideas, Facebook and scientific progress” and, for some reason, cited the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a really good example of that. As mayor of Fès, he tried to ban the sale of alcohol, but also threw up a replica of the Eiffel tower, which looked more like scraps of metal forming a shitty electrical pylon, and promised to build a beach (in an inland city). In July 2016, Chabat attended the RNC for Donald Trump’s acceptance speech (and gushed about Melania Trump’s speech!).
The PI finished third in the 2015 regional elections (and second in the municipal elections), but they were perceived as one of the main losers of the election. Most significantly, Chabat was defeated in a landslide in his own personal stronghold of Fès by the PJD, which won an absolute majority on the city council. The PI won 119 regional councillors, third behind the PJD (174) and PAM (132), but won only two (minor) regional presidencies – the Sahrawi ‘southern provinces’ of Laâyoune-Sakia El Hamra and Dakhla-Oued Ed Dahab (the PI is very strong in Western Sahara, perhaps because of their nationalist stances and a large presence of Moroccan war veterans). After the elections, Chabat significantly dialed down his criticisms of the PJD government. During the 2016 campaign, the Istiqlal incoherently alternated between attacks on the government’s record (on economic and social affairs, the PI and PJD are rather close on religious matters) and conciliatory messages indicating a desire to be included in the government after the elections. The Istiqlal ran two Salafists on their lists: Hicham Temsamani, who had been suspected of participating in the 2003 Casablanca and 2004 Madrid bombings, ran in Tangiers while Abdelouahab Rifki, convicted for his involvement in the 2003 Casablanca bombings, was second on Chabat’s own list in Fès. Both men defected from the small Salafist Renaissance and Virtue Party (PRV) and are said to have changed their views.
Union socialiste des forces populaires (Socialist Union of Popular Forces, USFP): The USFP is Morocco’s largest left-wing, social democratic party. The USFP was founded in 1975 as a breakaway from the leftist National Union of Popular Forces (UNFP). The UNFP had been created in 1959, primarily from the ‘radical’ and left-wing factions of the Istiqlal, veterans of the Moroccan National Liberation Army (ALN) and the Union marocaine du travail (UMT) trade union, spearheaded by Mehdi Ben Barka. Initially, the dissidents counted on King Mohammed V’s blessing, who had installed Istiqlal ‘leftist’ Abdallah Ibrahim as prime minister in 1958 and was keen on dividing the Istiqlal as to keep it from becoming too powerful. However, the UNFP lost all royal favours and became the prime target for Hassan II’s repression as soon as it started to be inconvenient for the regime. Mehdi Ben Barka was kidnapped and disappeared in October 1965 in Paris, and although the exact circumstances have not been established, most suspect that Moroccan general Mohamed Oufkir, who at the time was King Hassan II’s right-hand man for dirty business and later interior minister.
In 1970, the UNFP allied with the Istiqlal, the other major opposition party at the time, to form the Kutla and oppose the authoritarian 1970 constitution and boycott the 1970 elections. The Kutla also opposed the 1972 constitution, a minimal improvement on the previous document.
The UNFP split in 1975, with the majority of the party forming the USFP and a small minority continuing with the UNFP name, radicalized and removing themselves from the political system by boycotting all elections after 1972. In short, the USFP focused on democratization and building rule of law through participation in the legal political system (while still being in opposition), while the rump UNFP chose a radical, quasi-revolutionary path which questioned the very monarchical foundations of the Moroccan system. The USFP won 15% of the vote and 9% of the directly-elected seats in the 1977 election. King Hassan II, now favouring reconciliation, offered the USFP to participate in government, but it refused. However, when the USFP opposed the king’s 1980 constitutional amendments and withdrew from parliament shortly thereafter, Hassan II explicitly warned the socialists that he could not allow an opposition which disrespected the monarchy and excluded itself from the Muslim community. Nothing, however, came of the king’s threats. In 1984, the USFP won 12% of the vote and 34 of the direct seats (17%). Both the Istiqlal and USFP refused to be part of the government.
The USFP supported attempts to recreate the Kutla, although inter- and intra-party disagreements delayed its recreation until 1989. The USFP was divided between a moderate wing, largely its parliamentarians, who supported cooperating with the regime, and a radical wing which opposed working with the regime. Some of the opposition’s goals were achieved in the 1992 constitution, but the opposition was left highly dissatisfied with the outcome. The USFP was divided between its moderates, who wanted to call on its supporters to support the constitutional referendum, and the radicals who pushed for a boycott. This time around, the radicals won. In the 1993 election, the USFP finished in second, with 13% of the vote and 48 (out of 222) directly-elected seats. Following the election, the reconstituted Kutla, and the USFP in particular, was divided over whether it should accept King Hassan II’s offer to lead formation of a new government. Once again, ‘radicals’ opposed government participation, on the basis that the Kutla had not won an absolute majority and had been outperformed by the pro-regime parties in the indirect elections, so that no government formed on these results could be democratic. On the other hand, moderates felt that it right for Kutla to form government and that they should participate in the democratization process. The former option won, and the USFP (and Istiqlal) refused cabinet participation. This decision increased pressure on King Hassan II to further liberalize the regime, culminating in the 1996 constitution, which was supported by the USFP and Istiqlal.
The USFP ‘won’ the 1997 elections – with a resounding 13.9% of the vote and 57 of the 325 seats in the lower house. The Kutla, with the Istiqlal and PPS, emerged as the single largest bloc in the new lower house, with 102 seats, compared to 100 for the rival Wifaq (MP, UC and allies) and 97 for the Centre (RNI and allies). In February 1998, King Hassan II appointed USFP leader Abderrahman Youssoufi as prime minister, with a coalition made up of the Kutla and RNI. Youssoufi, a founding member of the UNFP and USFP, had been arrested in 1959 and 1963 and spent 15 years in exile in France during the harshest days of King Hassan II’s authoritarian reign. Youssoufi now formed Morocco’s first so-called gouvernement d’alternance, a landmark moment in the country’s democratization/liberalization. Critics claim that Youssoufi becoming prime minister proved that the USFP had been co-opted by the regime or had ‘sold out’. It’s not a baseless claim, since the institutional framework and political circumstances in 1998 were not very different than they had been in 1993, when the USFP had rejected government participation on the basis that there were still insufficient democratic guarantees. Furthermore, Hassan II’s objectives in appointing Youssoufi in 1998 certainly included co-opting, in some form, the USFP by bringing it ‘into the regime’ and out of opposition, to have the socialists take their share of responsibility in governing the country and to divide the Kutla against itself. He was fairly successful in the long-run, particularly on the first two points – the USFP remained in governments until 2011, even when it was no longer leading them, and has lost a great deal of credibility and legitimacy by becoming identified as another worthless power-hungry political party. Youssoufi’s government continued for its full term, until 2002, and most evaluations rate it very poorly. Despite (overly) good intentions and some achievements, it proved fairly incompetent – although the blame should be shared, since (shockingly enough) its more ambitious reformist goals were frustrated by Hassan II and Mohammed VI. Unfortunately for Morocco’s democratization, the very poor performance of the alternance government hurt the case for parliamentary democracy, weakened and further fragmented the party system and discredited the political parties further. Although maybe that was Hassan II and Mohammed VI’s Machiavellian goal all along?
Despite the unpopularity of Youssoufi’s government, the USFP remained the largest party in 2002, with 50 seats (2 more than the PI and 8 more than the PJD) and about 11.9% of the vote (an historic level of partisan fragmentation, with historically low turnout too). The USFP had expected King Mohammed VI to follow the ‘tradition’ set in 1998 in appointing the leader of the largest party as prime minister, but instead Mohammed VI appointed independent technocrat Driss Jettou, on the official pretense that Morocco required a ‘strong government’ to tackle the major economic and social problems. In reality, the election had been rather inconclusive, the parties (including, allegedly, the Istiqlal) were not overly keen on keeping Youssoufi and King Mohammed VI wanted a government close to him. The new Jettou government, in its makeup, was very similar to Youssoufi’s government, with the Kutla (and hence the USFP), RNI and now MP. In 2007, the USFP performed poorly at the polls, winning 38 seats – a loss of 12 – and 9% of the vote, collapsing to fifth place. Despite the party’s poor result, it remained in government, now as a junior partner in Istiqlal Prime Minister Abbas El Fassi’s government. The USFP’s continued participation in government deeply divided the party.
In 2011, the USFP won 39 seats and 8.6% of the vote, remaining in fifth place and stagnating at its 2007 levels. Benkirane invited the USFP to take part in his new government. The Islamist PJD had been seeking out an alliance with the USFP since the 2009 local elections (for the PJD, on the basis of shared interests in democratization and fighting corruption), but the national leadership of the USFP had rejected such an alliance – although local coalitions between the socialists and Islamists were formed in Rabat and Agadir. In 2011, the USFP’s national council voted unanimously against cabinet participation in December 2011. Since 2012, the USFP is led by Driss Lachgar.
Rassemblement national des indépendants (National Rally of Independents, RNI) and Union constitutionnelle (Constitutional Union, UC): The RNI (founded 1978) and the UC (founded 1983) are two parties originally founded by “King’s friends” and the makhzen, and although they no longer are truly “King’s friends” parties, they are often identified as such and remain fairly reliable ‘loyalists’.
The RNI was founded in 1978 by Prime Minister Ahmed Osman (1972-1979), King Hassan II’s brother-in-law, with the support of Hassan II’s (in)famous interior minister Driss Basri. In the 1977 elections, the makhzen‘s candidates had mostly run as independents, and they had won an absolute majority in Parliament (through the help of the 88 indirectly elected seats). The RNI was created by these pro-monarchy independents, as an “administration party”. The UC was founded in 1983 by Prime Minister Maati Bouabid (1979-1983). Ahead of the 1984 elections, King Hassan II banned candidates from running as independents, a move designed to favour the UC and RNI. The UC won the most seats in 1984 (82, including 55 direct) and the RNI the second most (60, including 38 direct). In 1993, the UC won the most seats (54), although it only placed third in the direct seats (27), while the RNI finished fifth with 41 seats (28 direct).
In 1997, the RNI and UC each led their own coalitions to rival the Istiqlal/USFP/PPS – the Wifaq with the UC (and MP) and the Centre with the RNI. Individually, the UC won 50 seats in the lower house (10.2% of the vote) and the RNI won 46 (11.1%), placing second and third respectively behind the victorious USFP. The Wifaq won 102 seats, just two less than the Kutla, and the Centre got 97. Since 1998, the RNI and UC have followed divergent paths in government participation – the RNI has been in every government since 1998, with the exception of Benkirane’s first government (2012-2013), while the UC has been in opposition since 1998. In the 2002 election, the RNI won 41 seats, while the UC suffered sharp loses – taking just 16 seats, down 34 from the 1997 election. In 2007, the RNI fell to 39 seats while the UC rose to 27 seats. In 2011, the RNI won 52 seats and the UC won 23. Both the RNI and UC had run as part of the PAM’s ‘Alliance for Democracy’ in 2011, but the coalition’s poor results and the MP’s decision to join cabinet (not appreciated by its erstwhile partners) led to the coalition’s very quick demise.
The UC had offered to participate in government, but that was frowned upon by the PPS. In 2013, when the Istiqlal left Benkirane’s coalition, the PJD had two options to save its parliamentary majority – including the RNI, or including the PAM, both of which were difficult because both parties were profiled as staunch opponents of the Islamists. The PJD’s remaining partners, the PPS and MP, were welcoming of the RNI, but some people in the PJD preferred to let the government fall, dissolve the House and hold snap elections. Neither the palace nor the Benkirane government liked the (expensive) idea of snap elections. It has been speculated that the Crown intervened to persuade the RNI to join the coalition, although the RNI claims that it joined because its key demands (a re-orientation of government policy and an agenda structured around key themes) were met. At any rate, the RNI, now the second largest party in the coalition, got 8 cabinet portfolios – the party’s leader, Salaheddine Mezouar, became foreign minister (displacing the PJD) and the party also got economy and finance (from the PI).
The RNI went under the radar after entering cabinet, forcing the party to put extra effort into a political communication strategy ahead of this year’s election. The party’s message was muddled – claiming credit for the government’s reforms, but criticizing the PJD more than some opposition parties, all under a very vague and ambiguous claim to be a “party of the middle”. The UC, which was one of the more moderate and consensual opposition parties, and played on an idea of “change without risk” with the slogan ‘serenity in action’ for the UC’s new leader, the former mayor of Casablanca Mohammed Sajid.
Ideologically, both the RNI and UC are commonly considered to be ‘liberal’ parties, on the centre or centre-right of the political spectrum (and both parties are in the Liberal International, although the RNI only as an observer, if that’s worthy anything). In some accounts, the UC is sometimes placed further to the right than the RNI, although I’m really unsure to what extent the notions of left/right are still relevant to Moroccan politics, especially when dealing with the likes of the RNI and UC.
Mouvement populaire (Popular Movement, MP): The MP was founded in 1957 by dissident ‘rural’ factions of the then-dominant Istiqlal Party, led by two figures of the nationalist movement – Berber tribal chief Mahjoubi Aherdane and Abdelkrim El Khatib. The party’s foundation was encouraged by the makhzen, as a means to weaken the Istiqlal Party, which at the time was a serious rival to the monarchy. The Istiqlal tried to prevent the MP’s legal registration as a party, which it obtained only two years later (in 1959), again after some hand twisting by the palace. The MP has since remained a loyalist party, its main difference with the RNI and UC being that it was not directly created by the makhzen.
The MP was founded by ‘rural factions’ in the Istiqlal, which at the time was a predominantly urban upper-class party. The MP was said to have been dominated by Tamazight (Berber) speakers, in the rural mountainous regions of the Atlas, but it never developed a distinct regionalist or Berber agenda (perhaps because that would, probably, be unconstitutional).
The MP was part of the pro-monarchy FDIC in the 1963 elections. In the 1970 elections, boycotted by the opposition, the MP finished second with a quarter of the seats. In 1977, the MP won 12% of the vote and 44 seats. In 1984, the MP won 15.5% of the vote and 47 seats (31 of them direct), finishing in third behind the fellow loyalist UC and RNI. In 1993, the MP won 12% of the vote and 51 seats (33 of them direct), finishing fourth. The MP, allied with the UC in the Wifaq coalition in 1997, won 10.4% of the vote and 40 seats in the lower house, holding on to its fourth place. In 2002, the MP fell to just 6.6% of the vote and 27 seats. The MP participated in the Jettou government (2002-2007), and joined Abbas El Fassi’s government two years into its term (2009). The MP improved to 41 seats (9% of the vote), a solid third, in the 2007 election. In 2011, the MP lost 9 seats, falling to 32 seats on 8% of the vote. The MP had participated in the PAM’s Alliance for Democracy or G8 alliance in 2011, but its decision to join the PJD Benkirane government took its erstwhile partners aback and hastened the collapse of that ephemeral pet project. The MP got four cabinet seats in the first Benkirane government, and six in his second cabinet.
Fairly remarkably, the MP has been led by the same person, Mohand Laenser, since 1986. Laenser’s leadership of the party was at the root of several splits, notably the creation of the Mouvement national populaire (MNP) by Mahjoubi Aherdane in 1991. The MNP won a sizable bench in 1993 (25 seats), 1997 (19) and 2002 (18) before rejoining the mother party in 2006. The MNP itself had gone through splits, notably the Mouvement démocratique et social (MDS) led by Mahmoud Archane in 1996, which won 32 seats in 1997. The MDS is still kicking, recently taken over by Abdelkrim Chadli, a former Salafist preacher who was arrested after the 2003 Casablanca bombings but pardoned by the king in 2011.
Laenser has held a whole bunch of cabinet positions since the 1980s, including nearly 11 years as posts and telecommunications minister (1981-1992). In the Benkirane I cabinet, he was interior minister (2012-2013). Between 2013 and 2015, Laenser was minister of urban and national spatial planning. He left the government in September 2015 upon his election as regional president of Fès-Meknès (he was elected with the votes of the PJD, RNI, USFP and PPS).
The MP is also, with the RNI and UC, a member of the Liberal International and its website tells us that while it is firmly attached to Morocco’s “authenticity and core values” (Islam, territorial integrity, monarchy) it is also liberal, without bothering to define what they mean by that. This election, the MP openly said that it had no platform to speak of but rather offered ‘visions’.
Parti du progrès et du socialisme (Party of Progress and Socialism, PPS): The PPS is an ostensibly left-wing socialist party founded in 1974 as a reconstitution of the Moroccan Communist Party (PCM, banned in the 1950s) and the Party of Liberation and Socialism (PLS, legal reincarnation of the PCM between 1968 and 1969). Like the Brazilian party with the same abbreviation (and even historical background!), the PPS suffers from an acute case of sinistrisme.
Ali Yata, the secretary general of the PCM since 1945, was the PPS’ leader between 1974 and his death in 1997. The Moroccan Communists were moderate and pragmatic, working within the “national peculiarities of the country” and advocating a “united popular front with an anti-imperialist and anti-bourgeois character”. In actual practice, this meant working with the USFP and later the conservative Istiqlal – in fact, the PPS was the most enthusiastic advocate for the reconstitution of the Kutla, as early as 1987. The PPS continued moving in a moderate direction, finding a niche within the comfortable trappings of controlled politics. Among other things, the PPS supported Morocco’s claims on Western Sahara (and obviously no longer opposed the monarchy).
The PPS won two seats in 1977 and 1984. The PPS supported a ‘no’ vote to the 1980 constitutional amendments, which obviously didn’t go down too well with Hassan II, so they were subject to regal harassment. In 1992, proof of its ‘evolution’, the PPS broke with its Kutla allies by supporting a ‘yes’ vote to the 1992 constitution, which both the USFP and PI opposed. In the 1993 election, the PPS grew to 10 seats, 6 of them direct. In 1997, the PPS won 4.3% of the vote and 9 seats. With the Kutla victorious, the PPS entered government. It has remained in cabinet ever since, as a small junior partner (between 1 and 3 ministers between 1998 and 2011). The PPS, in the eyes of many, has become – like the RNI, MP and arguably the USFP – a party focused on the acquisition of power.
The PPS won 11 seats in 2002, 17 seats in 2007 and a record 18 seats in 2011. By the looks of it, dropping ideology and focusing on political power has paid off well for them. The PPS remained in government under Benkirane – and got 4, then 5, cabinet ministers, the most significant portfolio being health although the PPS’ leader Mohamed Nabil Benabdallah has been housing minister since 2011. The PPS has been the PJD’s most loyal and steadfast ally, a fairly unlikely alliance considering the two parties’ roots (communism and Islamism) or that, as recently as 2007, the PPS was calling the PJD a conservative and retrograde force which was a danger to democracy. The PPS has ‘differences’ with the PJD on religious and moral matters, but it claims that the PJD has ‘evolved’ a lot, that they share a common vision on democratization (i.e. opposition to the royalist PAM) and social/economic policy and that, besides, social liberalism (as tentatively proposed by the PAM) is an unrealistic wet dream in Morocco. In September 2016, during the heat of the campaign, Nabil Benabdallah in a newspaper interview implicitly alluded to (royal adviser) Fouad Ali El Himma as the “person behind the PAM and symbolizing tahakoum“. Benabdallah’s controversial statement won him an unusually severe communiqué from the royal palace – Benabdallah’s words were irresponsible, in contradiction with the constitution and dangerous.
Other parties: In 2011, besides the eight major parties presented above, ten other parties won seats, all through the local constituencies, with one winning four, four winning two and the rest just a single seat. Many of these parties, with meaningless names, are obscure shells, most likely built around a personality or two with a sufficiently strong local base to win a parliamentary seat.
The most relevant of the minor parties is the Fédération de la gauche démocratique or Federation of the Democratic Left (FGD), an alliance of three left-wing opposition parties founded in 2007. The FGD is made up of the Party of the Democratic Socialist Vanguard (PADS), a 1983 splinter from the UNFP, the Ittihadi National Congress (CNI), a 2001 splinter from the USFP and the largest party, the Unified Socialist Party (PSU), the continuation of the Organization of the Popular Democratic Action (OADP). The OADP was created in 1983 by members of the clandestine, far-left and Marxist-Leninist Mouvement du 23 mars group led by Mohamed Bensaïd Aït Idder, a veteran of the Moroccan National Liberation Army (ALN). The OADP obtained its legal recognition thanks to its strong support for King Hassan II’s Western Sahara policy. The OADP won one seat in 1984 and became a member of the reconstituted Kutla with the PI, USFP and PPS in the early 1990s, although it was the most radical and anti-regime party in the coalition – for example, it was the only Kutla party to oppose the 1996 constitution and call for a ‘no’ vote in the referendum. As a result of its misbehaviour, interior minister Driss Basri orchestrated a split in the party. The OADP won 2 seats in 1993 and 4 in 1997.
In 2002, the OADP merged with three tiny groups to form the Unified Socialist Left, which became the PSU in 2005. The new group won 3 seats in 2002. In coalition with the PADS and CNI in 2007, they won 6 seats. The FGD boycotted the 2011 constitutional referendum, arguing that the new constitutions keeps most of the king’s powers intact, and also boycotted the November 2011 legislative elections. Since 2012, the PSU has been led by Nabila Mounib, a university professor and researcher.
The FGD advocates for a parliamentary, constitutional monarchy based on popular sovereignty, separation of powers and full guarantees for all fundamental rights. Its fairly detailed and concrete platform also opposes the “culturally conservative, economically neoliberal and socially unequal” government, wishes to see the government’s role in the economy strengthened and a whole host of other social and economic reforms. Omar Balafrej, the founder of the Clarté-Ambition-Courage movement, teamed up with the FGD for the 2015 local elections in Rabat and ran atop the FGD’s list in Rabat-Océan in this election.
Turnout was about 43% according to unofficial estimates reported on election day, which would be about 2% less than in 2011. Voter turnout in Moroccan elections has fallen from 85% in 1970 (although given the amount of fraud, manipulation and coercion in those elections, I wouldn’t put too much value in those numbers), with the trend becoming particularly glaring since 1997/2002. Turnout in 1997 was 58%, falling to just over 50% in 2002 (to be exact: 51.6%). Turnout collapsed to 37% in 2007. In 2011, turnout rose to 45%, which may indicate a greater interest or faith in politics in the aftermath of the new constitution (the constitutional referendum a few months earlier had seen massive 75% turnout) and/or the PJD’s rise to power.
However, those statistics are to be nuanced with two other elements: the very high number of spoiled ballots, and the even lower VAP turnout. In 2007, about 19% of votes were invalid. In 2011, 22.4% of the votes cast – or nearly 1.4 million – were invalid, leaving 4.745 million valid votes for the parties, not a very large increase from the 4.619 million valid votes for parties in 2007. Voter registration is not compulsory or automatic in Morocco, and about a third of eligible voters (or over 7 million Moroccans) are not registered to vote (in addition, voting rights for Moroccan citizens abroad is very convoluted and difficult, effectively excluding them – estimated at 3 million – from elections). The Autonomous University of Madrid’s Observatorio Político y Electoral del Mundo Árabe y Musulmán (OPEMAM) report on the elections estimated the VAP at 22,874,625 against an official electoral census of 15,702,592 registered voters. Most of those unregistered eligible voters are the youth – aged 18 to 24 – who make up 16% of the potential electorate but just 9% of registered voters. In contrast, all other age groups are over-represented on the electoral rolls. The OPEMAM estimated VAP turnout to be just 29.5% in 2016. IDEA’s voter turnout database estimates VAP turnout to have been 28.7% in 2011, 27.8% in 2007 and 40% in 2002.
There are also major regional differences in turnout. Unsurprisingly, urban areas have the lowest turnout, while the sparsely populated rural provinces have high turnout. In 2011, in the 13 prefectures (urban areas), turnout was 41% – and the percentage of valid votes to registered voters was even lower, at 31%. In 2011, the highest percentage of valid votes to registered voters (over 60%) came from four Sahrawi provinces – Aousserd, Boujdour, Tarfaya and Assa-Zag – which are incidentally the four provinces with the smallest populations. The lowest percentage of valid votes to registered voters (below 30%) included the urban areas of Agadir, Casablanca, Inezgane, Tétouan and Oujda. Rural provinces tend to be dominated by political bosses and clientelistic networks, and candidates may be better known to voters than in urban areas and therefore have an easier time mobilizing voters. Besides, in sparsely populated provinces, vote buying is easier. Urban voters, particularly the youth, are dissatisfied with the political system, dislike most/all of the parties/politicians and clientelism is less of a factor.
Frustratingly, the Moroccan government, a true paragon of transparency, has failed to release the full results of the elections, either at the constituency or national level, and we’re left without any data on valid votes for parties or invalid votes at any level. The official elections website’s results tab says “This page will be opened after the end of the screening process”. In 2015 local and regional election results were released only eight months later. What we can work with is the final seat count, as well as a PDF list of the parliamentarians elected, by constituency, with their names and parties (but no data on their votes).
PJD 125 (+18) – 98 local, 27 national
PAM 102 (+55) – 81 local, 21 national
Istiqlal 46 (-14) – 35 local, 11 national
RNI 37 (-15) – 28 local, 9 national
MP 27 (-5) – 20 local, 7 national
USFP 20 (-19) – 14 local, 6 national
UC 19 (-4) – 15 local, 4 national
PPS 12 (-6) – 7 local, 5 national
MDS 3 (+1) – 3 local
FGD 2 (+2) – 2 local
PGV 1 (nc) – 1 local
PUD 1 (nc) – 1 local
The governing PJD was ‘re-elected’, although perhaps the most notable aspect of these elections was the polarization around two parties – the governing PJD and the predominant opposition (in voice, if not in seats) PAM. Together, the two rivals won 58% of the seats in Parliament. In 2011, the PJD+PAM had won just 39% of the seats together, and the two largest parties then (the PJD and PI) had won 42% of the seats. In 2007 and 2002, the top two parties had won just 30% of the seats and in 1997, the two largest parties accounted for barely over a quarter of the seats. Therefore, the 2016 election saw an historic level of polarization around two major parties. Such a degree of polarization around the senior governing party and a single opposition party is a novelty in Moroccan electoral politics. It may be due to the fact that Benkirane’s government, and the party which leads it, arouses more passions (among those who do vote) than past governments, all fairly innocuous (at best), had.
Whether this indicates a consolidation of the Moroccan party system around two ‘poles’ – one Islamist, one ‘secular’/’monarchist’ – remains to be seen. In any case, the polarization between the PJD and PAM was no surprise. It was the natural and expected outcome of the electoral campaign, in which the PJD and PAM monopolized media coverage and were the only two parties seen as having a chance at first place (which, constitutionally, ‘guarantees’ the prime ministership). Both campaigns also presented the election as a horse race, and focused the brunt of their attacks on the other.
The PJD’s victory in spite of the unpopularity of several of the government’s policies surprised a few. However, its victory is confirmation that the party has, by far, the strongest, most extensive, most devoted and widespread grassroots base and local organization of any party in Morocco. The party has a whole host of cultural, charitable and political associations in urban areas which have a very strong mobilizing capacity. It is also the largest Moroccan party on the internet, although that’s probably more reflective of the PJD’s urban and middle-class electorate in contrast to the other parties’ more rural (and poorer) base.
Perhaps more surprising, in a way, is the PAM’s result – unlike the PJD, the PAM does not have a long history (it did not exist, basically, before the 2009 local elections) or a particularly renowned mobilizing capacity. However, the PAM, since 2015, has a very strong base in local and regional governments – it has the most local councillors, but more importantly, it holds five of Morocco’s twelve (new) regional presidencies. With the devolution of some powers (and financial resources) to these new regional governments, the regional level will become an important base for clientelism and patronage. Moroccan political scientist David Goeury noted in a post-election interview the importance, particularly in rural areas, of regional governments on the results (seat count). I will return to this particular point in a bit.
With the PJD and PAM monopolizing attention and seats, the other parties were all squeezed. The PI, RNI, MP, UC, USFP and PPS all lost seats. Only four small parties won seats (all through local lists), compared to ten in 2011. Besides the polarization around the PJD and PAM, the other parties suffered. mainly, from either their (a) lack of credibility or (b) their incoherent messaging. However, it’s worth noting that, in the absence of popular vote data, the analysis is incomplete. For example, the PI apparently increased its raw vote intake from 2011, but lost 14 seats (we can also see that with the PPS and USFP, who won less list seats than the UC despite winning more national seats). David Goeury noted that the largest remainder method can lead to a “collapse in the number of seats won while the party retains a large part of its electorate, but in a dispersed manner without electoral strongholds.”
The Istiqlal now holds just 46 seats. Many in the party will be eager to blame the party’s oddball leader, Hamid Chabat, whose quirks and oddities were presented above. Furthermore, the PI’s campaign under Chabat was unclear and somewhat incoherent – criticizing the PJD, at times pretty harshly, but also openly stating just hours before the election that the PI would be part of the next government regardless of the results. The RNI’s campaign was similarly incoherent, trying to have the cake and eat it: while being part of the outgoing government, seeking to take credit for the ‘good reforms’ but being critical of the PJD, sometimes moreso than an opposition party like the PI. The UC, a bit less incoherent in its placing, nevertheless provided only a very tame, measured and incomplete opposition to the PJD-led government – because the UC, despite having been outside governments for a long time now, has never really been an opposition party in the way Europeans and North Americans are used to. The USFP perhaps suffered the most out of all the larger parties – it lost 19 seats and ends up with just 20. The USFP’s collapse is the culmination (?) of a long term trend, which began while it was still in government. It goes back to its loss of credibility, particularly since its participation in the Driss Jettou government (2002-2007), which was not well understood by its voters. The socialists have completely lost their urban base, and are left with a rump increasingly made up of rural provinces – which kind of reminds me of how the parties in the pentapartito coalitions in Italy saw their vote shift from north to south during the demise of the First Republic. The PPS also lost support, falling to 12 seats, some blaming the party’s “counter-natural” close alliance with the PJD.
The ‘radical’ leftist FGD won two seats – in Rabat-Océan and Casablanca-Anfa – but the result was a disappointment for the alliance. Nabila Mounib, the FGD/PSU’s leader, lost in Casablanca-Anfa and failed to get in through the national women’s list. I don’t know anything about the small MDS, Unity and Democracy Party (PUD) and Moroccan Green Left Party (PGV).
In the absence of actual data, the best analysis that we can do is with the list of parliamentarians elected.
The PJD, as in 2011, clearly dominated all urban areas. In Casablanca, the PJD won 15 of the city’s 26 seats, against 7 for the PAM, two for the RNI and one for the UC. In Rabat and Salé, the PJD won four of both cities’ seven seats, with two for the PAM in each city and the last seat going to the FGD (Rabat) or RNI (Salé). In the Casa/Rabat urban conurbation, the PJD also dominated in Temara (2/4 seats) and Kénitra (3/7 seats). In Tangiers, the PJD won three out of five seats, leaving just one for the PAM (for former mayor Fouad El Omari, party leader Ilyas El Omari’s brother) and UC. In Fès, the PJD won four of the eight seats, against just two for the PI (one for Hamid Chabat in Fès-Nord) and one each for the PAM and RNI. In Meknès, the PJD won two seats out of six, with the remaining split between the UC, MP, RNI and PI. In Marrakech, the PJD swept five of the city’s nine seats, leaving three for the PAM and one for the MP. The PJD won two of Agadir and Oujda’s four seats. The PJD also appears to have expanded its reach to smaller towns across the country, even in the far south (Western Sahara), where the PJD won one of the two seats in Dakhla and one of the three seats in Laayoune. Only in a handful of rural provinces was the PJD shut out entirely. In Casablanca, Marrakech and Rabat/Salé, the PAM emerged as the main rival to the PJD and squeezed the other parties, particularly in Casablanca and Marrakech.
As aforementioned, the USFP and PPS used to have their electoral bases in urban areas, but the left’s support in urban Morocco has evaporated with their loss of credibility through continued government participation. Neither the USFP or PPS won any seats in the cities of Casablanca, Rabat, Salé, Tangiers, Fès, Meknès, Marrakech, Agadir or Kénitra. In the region of Casablanca-Settat, the USFP won just 2 seats and the PPS one, out of 57. In Rabat-Salé-Kénitra, the USFP and PPS won one and two seats, out of 39. On the other hand, the USFP won three out of eight seats in the southern Moroccan region of Guelmim-Oued Noun, a region of just 430,000 people (the USFP is the strongest party on its regional council, but lost the regional presidency by one vote to the RNI in 2015).
In 2011, as explained in this article, the PJD’s vote had a very strong positive correlation with urbanization (and, also, a correlation with low turnout). The PJD’s urban electorate is fairly well educated and middle-class.
The observation to be made is the importance, in more rural regions, of regional presidencies. The PAM, which holds five of them, benefited from this new factor. In the northern region of Tanger-Tétouan-Al Hoceïma, presided by the PAM’s leader Ilyas El Omari, the PAM won 8 out of 29 seats, one more than the PJD, despite the Islamists’ strength in the urban centre of Tangiers. In L’Oriental, also headed by the PAM, the party won 8 out of 23 seats against 5 for the PJD and PI. In Fès-Meknès, led by MP boss Mohand Laenser, the MP won five (out of 37 seats), certainly not enough to overpower the PJD’s stronghold in Fès (where, apparently, it won over 50% of the vote) and growing support in the provinces, but the single most important region for the MP in terms of seats. The PAM and PI won six seats apiece in the region. In Béni Mellal-Khénifra, which also has a PAM president, the party took 6 out of 25 seats against 5 for the PJD. In Marrakech-Safi, the PAM and PJD fought to a draw with 13 seats each – the PJD’s big support in Marrakech itself was counterbalanced by the PAM’s support in the smaller provinces, like Rehamna (2/3 seats for the PAM), Fouad Ali El Himma’s old political base. For the RNI, which governs two regions (Souss-Massa and Guelmim-Oued Noun), the trend is less obvious, although it has the second largest bench in Souss-Massa with 5 seats vs. 9 for the PJD and 4 for the PAM. Likewise, in the small (by population!) Sahrawi regions of Laâyoune-Sakia El Hamra and Dakhla-Oued Ed Dahab, both held by the Istiqlal, there is no apparent PI dominance – it won three out of nine seats in Laâyoune-Sakia El Hamra but was entirely shut out from Dakhla-Oued Ed Dahab’s four seats (split equally between the PJD, PAM, MP and USFP).
In urban areas, as alluded to, the ‘regional president effect’ was weaker than the PJD’s urban dominance. In Casablanca-Settat, which has a PAM regional presidency (if only because the PAM outbid the PJD in coalition building in 2015), the PAM was unable to challenge the PJD’s dominance (22 seats to 15). Nevertheless, we may presume that the PAM’s control of the regional government benefited the party in establishing itself, rather firmly, as the region’s leading non-PJD party. At the same time, the PAM also established itself as the largest non-PJD party in the region of Rabat-Salé-Kénitra, in spite of not controlling regional government there (it’s held by the PJD).
Benkirane was re-appointed prime minister by King Mohammed VI following the election. He must now form a coalition with a parliamentary majority, or at least one capable of obtaining the house’s confidence. An absolute majority, as constitutionally required in the confidence vote, is 198. The PJD has said that it is open to working with all parties except the PAM (the PAM also does not want to govern with the PJD in any case). The PJD’s closest – and only sure – ally is the PPS, with just 12 seats, bringing them to just 137 of the required 198 seats. Chabat’s Istiqlal is in talks with the PJD, and it will be recalled that Chabat had announced even before anybody had voted that the PI would be in the next government regardless of how things went. After the election, the Istiqlal’s national council unanimously voted to enter government, officially in the service of the homeland’s supreme interest, unofficially because most of the PI’s cadres didn’t like being in opposition since 2013 and were angling to return to cabinet. Chabat was likely pressured by the bigwigs in the Istiqlal, already displeased with his leadership. It is also rumoured that Chabat would like to have the presidency of the House for himself. The PJD/PI/PPS are still 15 short of an absolute majority.
The PI and the USFP have been on good terms as of late, and talks between the two parties continued after the election, particularly as the RNI and UC decided to unite forces and sit as a single bloc in the new House, which would hold 56 seats to the PI’s 46. The USFP, rattled by its major losses, is reticent, as in 2011 (another major defeat), to participate in cabinet but is apparently being pushed more and more in that direction by the Istiqlal, again perhaps as a way to rival the RNI-UC. With the USFP, the PJD/PI/PPS would have an absolute majority of 203 seats.
The RNI and MP, the two other parties of the outgoing government, have had a tumultuous relationship with the PJD and have been evasive about whether they will participate in government again. Salaheddine Mezouar, the leader of the RNI, resigned two days after the election, and the RNI – like the MP – has pushed back a decision on government participation until their national councils vote on the matter. The RNI’s post-electoral parliamentary alliance with the UC, meanwhile, is interpreted as a means for the two party to strengthen their common bargaining position against the PJD (and PI) in future government formation talks. The UC has said that it would be open to participating in government.
The Moroccan media has, at times, evoked the ‘worst case scenario’ where Benkirane is unable to form a government, which would open a constitutional crisis and likely force King Mohammed VI to intervene directly in government formation. If no government obtains the confidence of the House, the only option left would be an early dissolution by the king for snap elections. But that scenario is highly unlikely. The parties, besides the PAM, are all interested, to a certain extent, by government participation. It is hard to see a scenario where, somehow, Benkirane is unable to cobble together a parliamentary majority. As it stands, the PJD/PI/USFP/PPS coalition appears to be the likeliest option. If that coalition is put together, it would be up to Benkirane whether, like in 2013, he is satisfied with just an absolute majority or if, like in 2011, he prefers to pad his margins a bit and put together an ‘oversized’ government with the inclusion of another party (RNI, UC, MP).