In Morocco’s Oct. 7 elections, the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) won 126 out of 395 seats in the directly elected House of Representatives, the more important house in Morocco’s parliament. At 32 percent, the PJD’s share of seats was the most ever won by any political party in Morocco’s history: Even the Istiqlal Party, widely popular in the wake of independence, peaked at 29 percent in 1963. Although overshadowed by the PJD, the pro-monarchy Party of Authenticity and Modernity – which had the backing of the Interior Ministry’s Directorate of Territorial Surveillance, as demonstrated by government-selected local leaders’ vocal support for its candidates – finished a strong second place, taking 102 seats (26 percent) and more than doubling its representation in parliament. Despite taking pride in its modernist rhetoric, the PAM did best in rural areas where the government influence over voters is strongest. Meanwhile, the conservative PJD was stronger in the major cities, showing that voters there are more resistant to alleged tampering, whether it is pressure from the authorities or outright vote buying (the going price is rumored to be 300 dirhams, or $30).While the PAM and the PJD have both strengthened their positions since the 2011 elections, other parties lost ground. The Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP) garnered only 20 seats in its poorest showing since it was founded in 1975, and together with the other leftist parties secured an abysmal 34 seats, only 8.5 percent. The results also suggest that the PAM has been corroding the bases of the other loyalist parties by drawing in local powerbrokers – the Istiqlal Party dropped from 60 to 44 seats, the National Rally of Independents (RNI) from 52 to 37 seats, and the Popular Movement had a less significant loss from 32 to 27 seats. The PJD, meanwhile, has been able to build its strength in the vacuum left by fading nationalist parties that are no longer relevant, as nine out of 10 Moroccans were born after independence.
By all measures, the PJD victory was an unwelcome surprise for the regime, especially after the Interior Ministry had attempted to set the stage for favorable results for the PAM. The ministry waited several tense hours before announcing the election results, prompting PJD leader and Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane – worried the results were being altered – to pre-emptively announce victory late that night, forcing the ministry in turn to grudgingly release the official results shortly afterward. As of publication, the ministry still has not announced the full, detailed results, even though they have had this information since the morning of Oct. 8. Furthermore, Justice Minister Mustapha Ramid, himself a prominent PJD leader who co-chaired the commission supervising the election, found himself sidelined within the commission three weeks before the elections and protested the move on Facebook. In addition, Interior Minister Mohamed Hassad officially expressed his displeasure with the PJD for pre-emptively declaring victory, which he saw as a sign of mistrust in his ministry. The tension escalated to the extent that Hassad – who in theory is subordinate to Benkirane – made a statement that the PJD “still doubts the firm will of the people, headed by the king, to make the practice of democracy a deeply rooted reality and an irrevocable strategic choice.”
The PJD’s worry that the Interior Ministry would tweak the election results stemmed from King Mohammed VI’s thinly veiled attacks against Benkirane in the run-up to the elections. The king was also widely understood to be implicitly backing the PAM, which was founded by his friend and closest advisor, Fouad Ali El Himma. For example, PAM Secretary-General Ilyas El Omari accompanied the king during his official visit to China in May, even co-signing a major agreement (together with Industry and Trade Minister Moulay Hafid Elalamy) to create an industrial zone near Tangier that could provide thousands of jobs. The visit received favorable coverage from the state and pro-regime media, even though it would have been more fitting for the minister to sign the deal by himself.
Furthermore, the king waded into the public debate preceding official election campaigning, censuring members of the ruling coalition who were criticizing the palace’s traditional monopoly over executive power. In an official speech on July 30, Mohammed VI harshly rebuked Benkirane, though not by name, saying, “It is astonishing that some are undertaking practices that contradict the principles and ethics of political work, releasing statements and terms harmful to the nation’s reputation and detrimental to the sanctity and credibility of institutions, in their quest for votes and the sympathy of voters.” This was a reference to Benkirane’s remarks to Alaoual earlier that month that the government was not really in power but that there were other powers controlling decision-making, in reference to the king’s advisors, first and foremost Himma.
Heeding the royal warning, Benkirane was uncharacteristically quiet for weeks after the speech, even into the election campaigning season. A few days before campaigning started, the king’s office issued a written announcement sharply rebuking Housing Minister Nabil Benabdellah, also secretary-general of the Party of Progress and Socialism and Benkirane’s closest ally, in response to Benabdellah’s remarks that “the person who embodies control” over the Moroccan political system was “the person who founded the PAM,” referring again to Himma.
Despite the tense lead-up to the election, the PJD’s victory can be attributed to its leaders’ close connection with the low and middle classes, the lack of corruption scandals among its leaders, and its portrayal as a victim of vicious media attacks. The latest of these attacks targeted Abdallah Bouanou, head of the PJD faction in the House of Representatives, who was accused by the press of adultery ahead of the elections. The attacks on Bouanou seemed to have failed, as he improved on his 2011 electoral performance, winning an almost unheard-of 50,000 votes for his slate in Meknes.
Furthermore, its top-down decision to pursue a pragmatic approach to religion is paying off. The PJD is edging away from earlier attempts to impose its religious values, and its rhetoric has become consistently more secularized since it came to power in 2012. The party is even starting to come under attack for straying from its religion – for example in response to statements by Islamic preacher Ahmed Raissouni, the former head of the Unity and Reform Movement (MUR) and close affiliate of the PJD, that supported repealing Article 222 of the Moroccan Penal Code, which criminalizes publicly breaking the fast during the daytime in Ramadan.
Hassan Tarik, a political science professor at Settat University, described the Oct. 7 elections as a political earthquake that heralds “a new era for Moroccan party politics.” This is reflected in the rise of the PJD from nine seats in parliament in 1997 to 126 seats in 2016, but also the decline of the leftist parties, which is due to their cooptation, their move away from local activism and their marginalization of activists and intellectuals in favor of local notables. Similarly, the Federation of the Democratic Left (FGD) – a recently formed coalition of three small, far-left parties that are critical of monarchical control of power – may also represent a significant change. Despite its lack of media or financial resources, it finished ahead of the mainstream left in Casablanca, Rabat and 10 other cities.
Meanwhile, Benkirane’s popularity and his party’s strength inside and outside of Morocco’s elected institutions could force the regime in the coming years to pay more respect to the constitution and interpret it in a more democratic manner, particularly with regard to power sharing.
Maâti Monjib is a political analyst, human rights activist, and historian at the University of Mohammed V-Rabat. This commentary, translated from Arabic, first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (www.carnegieendowment.org/sada).
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 01, 2016, on page 7.