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Morocco: A Bipolarization under Royal Control

[A woman walks by a wall adorned with party symbols for election lists. Image by Vesna Middelkoop/Flickr] [A woman walks by a wall adorned with party symbols for election lists. Image by Vesna Middelkoop/Flickr]

The Moroccan electoral race began in September with the local and regional elections, which culminated on Tuesday 13 October with the election of the President of the Chamber of Councillors, the Upper House of Parliament. [1] The 120 elected representatives (217 prior to the constitutional reform of 2011) have designated Hakim Benchemass, from the Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM) as the president of the Chamber of Councillors. It took two rounds and a margin of one vote to rule out Benchemass’ opponent from the Istiqlal party, Abdessamad Kayouh. This narrow victory allowed the parliamentary opposition to take control of the Upper House.

While the Istiqlal Party, Morocco’s historical independence party, came in third in the regional elections, it still managed to win the greatest number of seats in the Chamber of Councillors, with a total twenty-four seats. The result came as a consolation prize for the party, which suffered a blow by losing its long-time stronghold, the city of Fes, which Istiqlal Party’s General Secretary, Hamid Chabat, has governed as mayor since 2003.

On 8 October, an investigation into “vote buying” against twenty-six people, including ten MPs, six of which were members of the Istiqlal party, caused much controversy in Moroccan politics.  According to Mohamed Madani, Professor of Political Science at Mohamed V University, “there is a political character to this announcement, and its timing, at the eve of the election of the President of the Chamber of Councillors, a crucial position for the party, is not innocent.” Professor Madany added that in the aftermath of the elections, the Istiqlal party announced its intention to quit the parliamentary opposition in order to provide “critical support” to the government; “one begins to wonder whether any pressures were exerted through the judiciary in order to make things easier for the PAM, the second power in the lower house.” [2]

Voting for what? And for whom?

Back to 4 September in Rabat: in a popular neighborhood in the capital city’s old medina. Voters regularly cross the gate of a primary school located at the end of a small dead end. When asked for whom he voted, Charaf, an engineer, shrugs his shoulders: “I could not distinguish between the different parties’ programs; I am going to vote for either the Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM) or the Party of Justice and Development (PJD), the ones who have the means to act.” Founded in 2008 by one of King Mohammed VI’s most influential advisors, the PAM is currently the main rival of the conservative Justice and Development Party (PJD). The Islamist party, which won the 2011 elections, has since been leading the ruling coalition ever since. The mutual attacks from both parties punctuated the campaign, and voters such as Charaf, who have a hard time distinguishing between the various political parties, confirm this polarization of political life that has been widely discussed. Khalid Ben Aboud, a PJD candidate in that district, welcomes the reform toward greater decentralization of power because it gives more powers to regional councils: “Our motto is to fight corruption and to achieve good governance at the local and regional levels. A freer management will allow us to ascertain the appropriateness of our choice.” During the 2009 elections, the PJD obtained a poor score, with only five percent of the vote. Since 2012, it has been running the government; but will the elections’ outcome favor their balance sheet?  “This is a historical challenge, we are hoping to consolidate our position”, adds Ben Aboud.

A Moral Vote

The latest elections have been a success for the PJD, having topped the list with 1.5 million votes, more than doubling their results in 2009, and receiving 200,000 more votes than the PAM. While the Islamist party finished third at the level of local councils, coming behind the PAM and the Istiqlal, the leftist parties were the main losers of the elections. According to Ali Bouabid, director of the political think tank Abderrahim Bouabid Foundation, this PJD’s success is the result of a “power-grab”:

The campaign which focused on national and ideological issues, has been largely polarized by the PAM-PJD duel. There has been very little discussion on the assessment of the elected representatives. There was no protest vote against the ruling party, although this is  usually the case for the interim elections. The PJD has stocked-up on voices; it stands out as the first urban party.

Bouabid also emphasized an important point: the gap  between the 1.5 million votes for the PJD and the more than fourteen million registered voters in Morocco:

The mistrust toward politicians in general, which feeds abstentionism, is still pervasive. Paradoxically it is also pushes the PJD to display its moralism. The PJD is able earn its traditional electorate as well as voters who practice sanction-voting and reject a political scene that they consider to be perverted. Some of the sanctioned political class is part of the coalition. The PJD feeds on the weakness of others.

For Professor Madani, the results the Party of the Lamp (an alias for the PJD, whose party symbol is a lamp) acheived comes as a surprise:

Although the party has taken some adverse actions against the middle classes, much of them have voted for the PJD. The government closed the path for direct hiring of unemployed graduates, increased fuel prices, changed the terms of the Compensation Fund, delayed retirement age, etc. It was expected that this would lead to a backlash. But voters know the government balance sheet, and the failure of this fight against corruption. They know that the government’s leeway is quite narrow, and this is why they do not blame put the blame solely on it.

In the countryside, where voters have been more active than elsewhere, the PAM has been leading. Mounia Bennani-Chraibi, a professor at the University of Lausanne sees in this the accentuation of a trend and the embodiment of two different political cultures caught between “a populist party” like the PJD, and a “party of notables” like the PAM: “The latter brings together people who mobilize through social authority, with their own material and symbolic resources, and their own networks. They have more clients and agents than they have actual activists.” According to the researcher, the rural success is explained by “the fact that the PAM is seen as close to the government, which attracts rural notables, or the ‘owners’ of electoral strongholds, who easily change their partisan label; they do not position themselves on the basis of national issues or even regional programs, the issue is the redistribution of scarce resources and protection.”

Prescribed Alliances

The Islamist party won the largest number of seats in regional councils. Still, it only won the presidency of two regions against five for PAM. A game of alliances fixed the direct outcomes of the ballot boxes. “This can be explained by electoral engineering (voting system, carving of the poll…)”, argues Madani, “but also because a number of parties are not autonomous in forming their alliances. They act upon what they are told and are under direct administrative control, or sometimes they are controlled by elites who fix administrative rules: this has been already been proven.” Therefore, the PJD’s power was limited in its ability to reach a more acceptable equilibrium for the palace: “The elections were supposed to happen in 2012 but they were postposed in order to avoid a tidal-wave of the PJD in the regions, when they had just won the legislative elections,” adds Madani. It is now likely that the 2016 legislative elections will also revolve around a PAM-PJD confrontation.

Khalid Ben Aboud, an elected PJD representative in Rabat interviewed on the day elections for  regional presidents were held, argues:

This is paradoxical; we are leading on the whole territory in terms of votes, we have convened alliances with parties in the majority, but our supposed allies did not keep their word. This is particularly the case of the National Rally of Independents (RNI), who relinquished the alliance in Casablanca, and who almost betrayed us in Tetouan…this is political and ethical incorrectness. This will have an impact on the coalition.

But Ali Bouabid questions this statement: “All of the parties agree on this type of alliances, no one disputes it. The governmental coalition did not draw any conclusions from what happened; and even though the PJD complains from the attitude of the RNI, the situation will remain unchanged. The PJD remains entangled in its moralizing behavior without drawing any political consequences…”

The South on the Line of Fire

Could the predominance of a partisan logic undermine the impact of regionalization? The reforms King Mohammed VI carried out were finally enshrined in terms of "advanced regionalization" in Article 1 of the 2011 constitution. Directly elected, the Regional Councils are entrusted with important skills and regulatory power. A solidarity fund and a leveraging fund have been established. Local authorities are now responsible for the implementation of budgets. “This is a major project,” recognizes Bouabid. “Significant skills have been transferred, with significant resources but the state is also attempting to territorialize through decentralization. The process remains under control but gives some leeway compared to the previous situation.” Thus, the regional governors still retain a key role.

Advanced regionalization could be considered as facilitating Morocco’s autonomy plan for the  disputed Western Sahara territory. In the opening speech of Parliament on 9 October, Mohamed VI recalled the very high electoral turnout in the “southern provinces.”

If the locals experience more decentralization, this will create greater involvement of people in the management of their future and the fate of these territories,” explains Ali Bouabid. “On this very question, it will also depend on the diplomatic configuration. Morocco is not alone but we can also imagine that calls for a greater autonomy could fade away with the argument that there is already a regionalization process,” adds Mohamed Madani.

The analyst highlights some positive outcomes in the application of this reform for the future of the southern territories: “There could be positive if regionalization is to be associated with democratization, one could imagine that young Sahrawis would prefer to see themselves in this model rather than to being tied to a small state or to Algeria.” Nonetheless, Madani insists that “this reform raises the question of democratization, as well as the question on the provisions of the monarchy to make concessions, it is a problem of separation of powers.”

[This article is published in partnership with OrientXXI]


1- NDLR. Its members are elected indirectly by for a period of six years by the elected representatives of professional chambers, employees, the General Confederation of Moroccan Enterprises (CGEM), and local authorities.

2- The House of Representatives, or “Lower House” is composed of 395 members elected for five years through direct universal suffrage and proportional list system.

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