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The Ongoing, Steady Gains of Morocco's Islamist Party

[Image of leaders from the Party of Justice and Development celebrating their wins in the 2011 parliamentary elections. Image from Wikimedia Commons] [Image of leaders from the Party of Justice and Development celebrating their wins in the 2011 parliamentary elections. Image from Wikimedia Commons]

Moroccans took to the polls on 4 September to vote in the first local elections since 2009. A total of about one hundred forty thousand candidates competed for around thirty-two thousand seats. These local elections were the first to take place after the new constitution in 2011, which the monarch effectively used as a way to steal the 20 February Movement’s thunder and calm the protests by seemingly giving in to some of the protestors’ demands. The new constitution and the subsequent law of regionalization gives more power to regional councils, and also aims to give Morocco’s twelve regions more prerogatives.

The Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) is the clear winner of this year’s election. The PJD won a plurality of regional council seats (over twenty-five percent). Its main rival, the Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), a party that the palace established in 2008 in order to create a counterweight to the Islamist PJD, won just a little over nineteen percent of the seats. The PJD won the majority in most of the important cities: Casablanca, Rabat, Sale, Marrakech, Fès, Meknès, Tanger, Kénitra, and Agadir. The party thereby continued to establish itself as the major force in urban centers. On the municipality level, the PJD came third with nearly sixteen percent of the votes after the PAM who won about twenty-one percent, and the nationalist Istiqlal (Independence) Party won just a little over sixteen percent.

Nevertheless, electoral engineering from above meant that the strong showing of the PJD has been partly relativized. On the basis of results from local elections, the twelve regional presidents were elected on 14 September. The PAM won five of the regional presidencies whereas the PJD, the National Rally of Independents (RNI), and the Istiqlal Party won two each. The Popular Movement (MP) won only one presidency. The results mean that the mayors of all the big cities, such as Casablanca, Rabat, and Agadir are now under the PJD, as opposed to only two minor regional presidencies. The result, therefore, does not reflect the PJD's strong electoral showing.  

The results can be explained due to the fact that the PJD's government coalition partner, the RNI—a makhzen party—had voted for the PAM candidates, thereby stabbing its coalition partner in the back. The RNI's electoral behavior helped the PAM become more influential in the regions. The regions have gained importance through state-led development and infrastructure programs over the past decade. As a result, the PJD mayors have to work closely with the regional presidents. How much the PJD will be able to get done in the cities will therefore also depend on how well they will work together with the PAM. The RNI's change of sides should be seen as a tactical maneuver from the makhzen's part, as an attempt to contain the newly gained influence of the PJD in the cities. During an interview with Bilal Talidi, a member of PJD's national bureau, Talidi claimed that the regions that are seen as strategic because they are wealthy, touristy, or border regions were deliberately kept outside of the PJD’s influence. In fact the five regions the PAM won (Tanger-Tetouan-Al Hoceima, Oriental, Béni-Mellal-Khénifra, Marrakech-Safi, Casablanca-Settat) generated over sixty percent of the GDP in 2013 according to the figures the Moroccan Federal Office of Statistics released. 

The Electoral Victory Makes the PJD the Frontrunner for 2016 

The elections were seen as a major test for the government of Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane, who, in January 2012, formed Morocco’s first Islamist-led government. Whereas in Tunisia, the Islamist Ennahda party took a hit in the 2014 parliamentary elections and also lost the presidency to Beji Caid Essebsi, the leader of the secular Nidaa Tounes party. While in Egypt, a popular-led coup ousted the Muslim Brotherhood, which has since faced severe repression and persecution in military-led Egypt. Contrarily in Morocco, Islamists have been able to gain ground. In the last local elections in 2009, the PJD obtained seven hundred thousand votes, a number that in 2015 reached over 1.5 million.  

The electoral success of Moroccan Islamists is due to a combination of factors. Internal democracy and a strong coherent political message make the party credible. The PJD is also strong, because other parties, in particular on the left, are weak—like the Fédération de la Gauche Démocratique (FGD). Most importantly, in contrast to other Islamist movements in the region, the party has demonstrated extreme pragmatism. The party’s clear and explicit commitment to the monarchy and the fact that it does not want to radically change the existing political order has been key to the party’s success. An understanding of political Islam as an opposition movement to the state therefore does not apply with respect to the PJD. 

Effective Leadership and Internal Democracy

The PJD conducted an effective electoral campaign. It benefited from having a prime minister in office who is popular with ordinary Moroccans and who was extremely present during the campaign. Benkirane toured all the big cities, among them Casablanca, Salé, Fes, Meknes, Agadir, Taza, and Tiznit as well as other smaller ones. The media was quick to point out that the PJD spent 312,419 MAD (around thirty-two thousand US dollars) of its campaign funds on Benkirane’s private jet, so that Benkirane could fly from city to city, but this did not seem to have harmed his overall popularity. Other parties lack equally popular leaders. When Fouad Ali El Himma, a childhood friend and advisor to the king, stepped back from the front scenes of the PAM in 2011, the party lost its charismatic leader. The party’s current leadership lacks credibility. Mustapha Bakkoury, the general secretary, is the former director of the Caisse de Dépôt et de Gestion, a public financial institution. Despite holding public office, he is also the head of the Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy (MASEN), a publically owned company with hundreds of thousands of dollars of investment. The PJD is quick to point out that he is a technocrat who lacks political credentials. 

Most parties do not have strong local constituencies and enjoy little ideological affiliation with the electorate. Candidates often move back and forth between parties, which makes them look corrupt and inefficient. Omar Balafrej, the candidate of the leftist FGD for Agdal-Hay Riad recently pointed out this fact during a televised debate with other politicians. The PAM has successfully recruited local notables, mainly in rural areas, who use family and personal ties to secure votes. In contrast, the PJD vets candidates carefully and internal democracy guarantees that the most promising candidates are selected. Future MPs have to pass a three-stage selection process: beginning with a selection process led by the local committee, followed by a similar process of selection under the regional committee, and finally getting appointed by the party’s secretary general. This strict selection process is designed to guarantee that candidates are committed and do not run for opportunistic reasons.  

“We held two thousand meetings just to choose the candidates who competed in these elections. Benkirane said if there is no internal democracy, we will fight with each other, so there needs to be a consensus behind the decision to present a certain candidate. Before they are elected by members we talk about each candidate for three hours. We look for honest, non-corrupt, and qualified people. Our procedures are very strict, but afterwards we do not face any problems, because the decision is consensual,” explains Bilal Talidi, a member of the national bureau of the PJD and editor of the party’s publication, al-Tajdid, in an interview.

MP's from the PJD present themselves as effective local managers. The PJD has adopted a managerial discourse that has been at the core of the party’s legitimation strategy. On the local level the party has put an emphasis on good governance. Members of the PJD present themselves as efficient managers who use local funds responsibly, which distinguishes them from other candidates.[1] People therefore do not necessarily vote for the PJD for religious reasons, but because they see them as a non-corrupt alternative to the other parties who have lost credibility. The fact that the PJD did well in relatively wealthy neighborhoods, such as Agdal-Hay Riad refutes the widely held belief that it is the economically deprived who vote for Islamist parties and candidates. The PJD has a strong middle class constituency and has thereby increasingly replaced the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP) as the main force in the urban centers.[2] Supporters of the party hold socially conservative views and support the neoliberal business model of cutting subsidies and encouraging privatization and foreign investment, as the PJD propagates.  

Some Success to Show for Despite the Limited Room for Maneuver

Since the party formed the first Islamist-led government in 2012, its room for maneuvering has been restricted with the monarchy remaining the central source of power of the political system. The shadow cabinet of the king almost presents a parallel government. This is despite the fact that the 2011 constitution attributes more prerogatives to the parliament. The PJD had to and continues to accept the practice of sovereign ministries that directly report to the king like the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Religious Affairs. The PJD has adopted an attitude of extreme pragmatism. It has been careful not to enter into a confrontational relationship with the king. During a meeting in January 2015 with the PJD’s youth, the prime minister declared that the PJD does not govern Morocco. Similarly, in an interview with Al Jazeera Arabic in May this year, Benkirane explained to journalist Ahmed Mansour that the king rules Morocco. Other members of the party also openly acknowledge that Morocco is still a country where the king rules and governs. Abdelaali Hamiedinne, member of the PJD’s general secretariat, admits that “the government cannot survive without the support of the king.” 

In the end, the balancing act between taking responsibility and portraying itself as a party of effective managers, while at the same time acknowledging that they are not completely in charge, has paid off during this year’s local elections. Voters have rewarded this honesty, which no previous political party ever dared to express. This strategy will, however, prove risky and less sustainable in the long run. The gains the party made in this year’s elections make it more difficult to claim that they are not truly in control and voters will judge them more harshly if they fail to deliver.

Overall, the party has managed to effectively communicate with the electorate and to sell its anti-corruption message even though, in reality, it rarely followed through on its anti-corruption efforts and at other times gained the laurels for things it actually did not do. In 2011, it ran on an anti-corruption platform and has since pursued a moralization of public life.[3] By portraying corruption as an individual failure and not as a structural problem, there is an absence of questioning the business practices of the monarch and his entourage. In interviews, members of the PJD claim that the party reformed the access criteria to ministries by imposing national exams as entry qualifications, which sends an anti-patronage message and arguably helps to establish equal opportunities for everyone with an interest in holding a ministerial position. However, the decree that reforms conditions for holding public positions dates back to 25 November 2011, whereas Benkirane was officially nominated prime minister 29 November 2011, meaning that the party did not introduce this amendment. In another of the many attempts to counter corruption, the PJD announced reform measures for the licensing system for taxis. In an effort to increase transparency on how these licenses are distributed, it decided to publish the lists of people who own taxi licenses, which included many prominent names. While this has arguably increased transparency and access to information, which holds great value, in the end the party did not take action to reform this system. People are therefore under the impression that the party is really fighting corruption since this features prominently in the public discourse whereas, in reality, it often does not follow through. 

More Royalist than the King

The PJD began contesting elections in the 1990s. The monarchy orchestrated the political integration of the party after the largest Islamist movement, Al Adl wal Ihsan, had resisted the monarchy's cooptation attempts. The PJD was obliged to recognize the religious and executive prerogatives of the king. It is a royalist party in that it accepts the given configuration of power and does not seek to radically alter it. Since acceding to government in 2011, the PJD has been careful to reaffirm its monarchist stance. From the beginning of its experience in government, the party interpreted its prerogatives conservatively in order to avoid any clash with the monarchy. Members of the PJD do not get tired of repeating that they want “gradual change with stability,” a message that echoes that of the monarchy's.

The experience of neighboring Algeria greatly influences this approach, where the military annulled the second round of elections in 1992 after it became apparent that the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) would win a sweeping victory. The PJD feels vindicated by the more recent example of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood that its model of gradual change is the most effective. Members of the PJD see the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood as a movement that lacks political intelligence and that wanted too much too soon and subsequently failed. In the end, it is this message of gradual change that the PJD promoted in combination with clear support for the monarchy, making the party attractive to voters who want change but not necessarily regime change. 

A Coherent Political Message that is Appealing to Voters 

On social policies, like abortion and women’s rights, the party remains conservative, which has angered secular women’s groups. Fouzia Assouli, the president of the established Fédération de la Ligue Démocratique des Droits des Femmes (FLDDF) claimed during an interview that the Benkirane government has meant a backlash for women’s rights. Assouli criticizes that women’s groups have not been consulted on key policy issues like the parity law. The PJD has been slow to implement the new parity provisions of the 2011 constitution, which women’s groups claim shows the government’s lack of commitment to parity. Misogynistic statements made by the prime minister and the fact that Minister of Justice Mustapha Ramid is in a polygamous marriage were perceived as setting a bad example for Moroccans and encouraged stereotypes and stigmatization of women. In June 2014, Benkirane compared women to lusters that illuminate the home. He concluded that the homes become dark places when women go out to work, a statement that was commonly understood as being targeted against women’s participation in the labor market. It triggered the campaign #anamachitria which translates to “I am not a luster” in Moroccan colloquial Arabic. However, while these statements angered a very outspoken Moroccan middle-class elite, it resonated with many Moroccans who understand the same message as a commitment to family values and family cohesion. These portions of the population also agree with the conservative gender roles that the party promotes, bolstering the perception of the party’s message as being coherent. 

Women’s groups like the FLDDF and others also criticize the first Benkirane government (2012-2013) for only having one single female minister, Bassima Hakkaoui, who is the minister of solidarity, women, family and social development and a member of the PJD. However, none of the other parties of the government coalition, including the Party for Progress and Socialism (PPS), have deemed it necessary to appoint a female minister, making the official Left look hypocritical. When the government was reshuffled in October 2013 a second woman was appointed minister. However out of a total of twenty-four ministers, female representation remains marginal. Again female political representation might not have been seen as that essential to the broader electorate. 

Strong Because Others Are Weak 

The Islamists are strong because their competitors are weak. This applies especially to the Left, which is the clear loser of this year’s contest. Whereas the PJD’s message is simple and clear regarding its stance toward the monarch, the Left is divided and displays internal contradictions on how it sees its relationship with the existing political order. Since there is no agreement on the kind of political system the Left wants and how to achieve it, parties have at times boycotted, and at other times participated in the electoral process. Whereas the Unified Socialist Party (PSU) boycotted the elections of 2011, in 2015 it decided to participate as part of a coalition of three leftist parties that ran under the umbrella called the Federation of the Democratic Left (FGD), even though the political framework between 2011 and 2015 had not changed. One radical leftist party, the Democratic Way (Annahj Addimocrati) boycotted the elections and campaigned for a general boycott. Eleven of its members were arrested in Rabat on 25 August because they organized a campaign calling for the boycott of the elections. 

The 2015 elections have significantly increased the PJD’s legitimacy. However, one should be careful not to assume continuous success of the party in the future. Moroccan parties tend to have an expiration date of two mandates in government before they lose credibility. When the leftist parties entered the government in 1998 for the first time after decades of being in opposition, the government led by the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP) survived two terms before collapsing. The party had changed its recruitment process after acceding to the government, was subsequently undermined by opportunists, and ultimately suffered reputational damage that led to internal divisions and eventually its demise. The PJD’s experience, so far, is therefore not exceptional by any comparison but presents, for the time being, a successful cooptation attempt from the part of the monarchy. If the party is reelected for a third mandate in 2021, one can start speaking about the PJD’s success as being exceptional.  

However, should the PJD become discredited too quickly, the monarchy will face a serious challenge, having no card left to play. The monarchy therefore has an interest in preserving the experience of the PJD for the moment, which also means preserving the image of gradual change. The official turnout has been declared at 53.67 percent, which seems inflated. The model of participative democracy that the king propagates is only credible when people actually participate in the elections—which explains the harsh crackdown on campaigns that call for a boycott of the elections. The campaign is unimportant in terms of numbers, but boycotting the elections undermines the official narrative of participative democracy. Façade democracy only works when you have a minimum of participation. 

The monarchy therefore has to build up a party that can present a challenge to the PJD in urban centers where people voted increasingly for programmatic and nonclientelist reasons. The PJD’s main rival, the PAM, has done well in rural areas where patronage is more important than programmatic politics. People vote PAM because they know that the party enjoys good ties to the monarchy, which they hope to benefit from in the form of investments and handouts. However, since the party was originally set up to create a counterweight to the Islamists, the sweeping victory of the PJD in urban centers shows that the PAM is increasingly unable to present a credible alternative to the Justice and Development Party. The PAM subsequently presents a less useful tool for the monarchy if it cannot win in the cities, which poses a challenge for the monarchy in the long run.  

The balancing out of various political factions is a central element of the Moroccan monarchy’s survival strategy. The future stability of the current political constellation therefore depends on finding new ways to maintain the balance, especially after an election that has shown that the scale is increasingly tipping to one side.

[A version of this article was published in German on Zenith.]


[1] [2] Mounia Bennani-Chraïbi, "‘Hommes d'affaires’ versus ‘profs de fac.’ La notabilisation parlementaire d'un parti de militants au Maroc,” Revue Internationale de Politique Comparée 15, no. 2 (2008), 217.

[3] Malika Zeghal und Khadija Mohsen-Finan, “Opposition islamiste et pouvoir monarchique au Maroc. Le cas du Parti de Justice et du Développement,” Revue Française de la Science Politique 56, no. 1 (2006), 103. 

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