In Morocco's politics, the monarchy reigns supreme

A Moroccan woman holds a Moroccan flag during a demonstration against terrorism on May 7, 2011. [Getty]
7 min read
21 September, 2021
Analysis: While the Islamist-led coalition suffered a shock defeat as liberal parties made gains, the main purpose of elections in Morocco is to produce political elites capable of implementing the palace's vision.

Earlier this month, the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) suffered a crushing defeat in parliamentary elections in Morocco to the National Rally of Independents (RNI) led by a wealthy oil importer close to the monarchy.

The PJD secured only 12 out of 395 parliamentary seats, down from 125 in 2016 - a new low after a decade as the largest party in parliament following the uprisings of the so-called Arab Spring.

The RNI, backed by Aziz Akhannouch, came top with 97 seats after 96% of the ballots were counted following a national participation rate of 50.35%, an increase compared to the last legislative elections in 2016 which had a 43% voter turnout.

The Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM) took second place with 82 seats, followed by the Istiqlal Party at 78 seats and the Socialist Union of Popular Forces at 35 seats.

"The Justice and Development Party suffered a crushing defeat in parliamentary elections in Morocco to the National Rally of Independents led by a wealthy oil importer close to the monarchy"

Following the defeat, former prime minister Saad Eddine El Othmani handed in his resignation as secretary-general of the PJD and criticised the election results for not reflecting “the reality of the political map, nor the party’s position in the political scene and its outcome in managing local and governmental public affairs”.

Some observers have focused on the positive general climate of these elections, which took place during the difficult circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, despite a commendable voter turnout, true power in the decision-making process rests not with the population nor the elected officials, but with King Mohammed VI and the royal institution, often referred to as the ‘Makhzen’.

Over the course of its governance, the PJD was accused of swaying from its ideological position by acting as an intermediary through which the royals could pass a number of unpopular reforms, including on the pension system, an overhaul of the compensation fund, and a reduction in the number of civil servants.

Perspectives

The main takeaway from the new structuring of parliament has been the evident control of the monarch over the political sphere - a fact made clearer with the king’s decision to appoint loyalist billionaire businessman and Agriculture Minister Aziz Akhannouch as the new PM, who will now manoeuvre a coalition of parties all close to the palace.

While the PJD’s performance in governance was poor and most of their promises failed to materialise, amendments to the electoral law this year, in which the share of seats for parties was calculated based on registered voters rather than those who actually cast their ballots, is one of the many excuses the party has used to explain the margin of its losses.

Downward trajectory

In the last decade, the PJD was one of a few successful moderate Islamist parties in the MENA region. But unlike Egypt and Tunisia, where Islamists were removed from power via military and constitutional coups, their end in governance came via the ballot box in an electoral process which saw the monarchy take a backseat.

Whilst there are a number of contributing factors to the PJD’s staggering defeat, the drop in support for political Islam in the region over failures by those elected to deliver improved living conditions, reduce unemployment and corruption, and revive the economy, which has shrunk by 6%, makes the PJD’s exit all the less surprising.

The changes to the electoral law in 2020 to pave the way for more representation of smaller parties in parliament was viewed as a means by which the monarchy could curtail the PJD and one of the reasons behind its defeat - although the law arguably prevented the party from losing a lot more severely than it did.

In Morocco's politics, the monarchy reigns supreme
A woman prepares to cast her ballot during Morocco's parliamentary and local elections in the capital Rabat on 8 September 2021. [Getty]

The PJD shouldering the blame for the country’s problems, a convenient scapegoat for the palace over the years, paved an opening for Akhannouch to relaunch the RNI, which had only managed to secure 37 seats in 2016 by attracting elites and donors around Morocco not allied to the Islamists.

It is worth noting that all parties that won the most seats in this election are loyal to the palace. However, unlike the case in the last elections in which the monarchy explicitly backed PAM, these elections saw no party favoured.

Despite accusations from the PJD of “dirty money” in which votes were bought and voting records were withheld from PJD candidates, claims which the Interior Ministry has dismissed, the fact that the party has successfully operated in this election in much the same conditions that have defined Morocco’s political and election environment for some time is an indication that some of the blame for its defeat would be better redirected inwards.

"By the time of its defeat in recent elections, the PJD had been co-opted by the palace and had significantly alienated itself from its voters by authorising a number of decisions that went against its ethos"

The replacement of former prime minister Abdelilah Benkirane with Saad Eddine El Othmani by the king in 2017 ignited internal conflict within the party which was then exacerbated by its inability to find a balance between preserving its principles and being loyal to the monarchy.

By the time of its defeat in recent elections, the PJD had been co-opted by the palace and had significantly alienated itself from its voters by authorising a number of decisions that went against its ethos, such as legalising medical cannabis and signing the Abraham Accords normalising relations with Israel.

It also did not help its case that just a few weeks before elections the party angered labour unions after it passed a reform increasing the pension age from 60 to 63. It has also previously been accused of trying to privatise the education system by introducing two-year contracts for teachers.

Analysis
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Monarchy reigns supreme

The PJD has said it will remain as part of the opposition in Morocco and will not seek to join the next governing coalition. Given that no party can win more than 50% of seats in any election, coalitions are an inevitability for any successful party, which is unlikely to be the Islamists anymore in Morocco.

While the elections have been received positively for the most part, the fact remains that the role of elected officials is considerably limited compared to the hold the palace continues to have in politics. The main purpose of elections is to simply produce the political elites capable of implementing the palace’s vision.

Morocco operates as a constitutional monarchy which allows for the king to hold sweeping powers, including appointing the PM and then approving the cabinet selected. The Palace also has to approve the choices of key departments including the interior, foreign affairs, and defence ministers.

"The main takeaway from the new structuring of parliament has been the evident control of the monarch over the political sphere"

With Akhannouch and his money now heading the new government, the election results have highlighted the increasingly popular merger of politics and business, making it less about the political parties and more about empowering individuals with strategic business interests and links to wealth, which are becoming more necessary for economic security.  

The growing trend of commerciality and business enabling political success and effective governance is an indication of where the focus of the monarchy lies, namely prioritising the improvement of the state of the economy in order to ensure stability and regional influence in the face of neighbouring OPEC rivals, Algeria.

The king’s aim is to now cement his powers within the constitutional monarchy and ensure public support improves rather than worsens. The main plan of action for the government will be the implementation of the king’s "new model of development" over the course of the next decade, which all parties are expected to sign up to, in the hopes of reducing the wealth gap and doubling per-capita economic output by 2035.

While the palace and the politicians will be expected to deliver on election promises and to address pressing social grievances, tensions will still remain in the country in the quest for a truly representative and accountable government, and in ensuring the powers of the king are kept in check. 

Yasmina Allouche is a freelance journalist and researcher working on the Maghreb with a special focus on Algeria.

Follow her on Twitter: @animsche