On 4 September 2015, Morocco’s citizens had to elect people to fill 30,000 local council seats and 700 regional council seats from among 140,000 candidates representing at least 30 parties. This was the first time Moroccans had chosen both local and regional representatives directly in one election, a development unprecedented in Morocco’s political history.
The turnout was high (53.67 per cent) compared with that of the election of 2009 (52.4 per cent); three main parties were the winners. In the regional contests, the (Islamist) Party for Justice and Development (PJD), which has led the government since 2011, took the most seats (174, or 25 per cent of the total). The Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), which was created by the palace in 2008 came next, with 132 seats, and coming third was the oldest party in the country, the Istiqlal Party (PI), with 119 seats. The PAM took 6,655 local council seats (21 per cent), the PJD 5,021 (17 per cent), and the PI 5,106 seats (16 per cent). The topics on which PJD fared best were social justice and the fight against corruption. The results show that Morocco is an emerging democracy.
Attitudes towards these results vary among Moroccans, but two main trends may be discerned. First, the majority, consisting of apolitical, often poor and semi-literate or illiterate people, see in these elections a way to end corruption and accomplish immediate change. Second, the political and intellectual elite is largely urban and sees in this election a step forward on the road of democracy. The latter are generally optimistic and expect long-term change. The two trends are to be expected in a largely illiterate, developing country, given that the urban elite is more aware of the progress made than is the majority.
A closer analysis of the September 2015 elections reveals several points:
First, the turnout and interest in the elections prove that Moroccan citizens have regained some confidence in their institutions, after long being suspicious of their usefulness. This is the first time in the history of Morocco that citizens have chosen directly their local and regional representatives. Despite some irregularities noted by independent observers, there were no efforts to influence voters during the polling, and the voting process came very close to meeting international standards. Moroccan citizens have realized that the 2011 constitution guarantees fair elections and the participation of both men and women in elections. The general mood is that, while the Islamist-led government passed the test of popularity, the main winner was democracy. Most Moroccans do not realize that elections do not result in instant change, but interest in elections seems to make sense to the people. The Moroccan transition seems to have been less difficult overall than those of Algeria and Egypt. When Algeria wanted to introduce democracy in the early 1990s, it lost some 250,000 lives, and the military regime in Egypt is resorting to violence every day to maintain its authority. Although Moroccan elections were not without setbacks, there was no resort to violence.
Second, the September elections consolidated Morocco’s regionalization project, in which the country’s 12 regions will be led by an elected council with broad economic, human, infrastructural, environmental, and cultural-development powers. This is a major step forward and a landmark post–Arab Spring reform. This is a huge national commitment by the government, which has, since 2011, advocated “reform under stability”; failure to carry out this project will seriously harm the country’s credibility.
Third, the results of the September elections show the decline of traditional political parties—such as the Union Socialiste des Forces Populaires (USFP) , the Mouvement Populaire (MP), the Rassemblement National des Independents (RNI), and the Istiqlal Party (PI)—and the rise of new political parties, including the PJD and PAM who won the elections. The elections resulted in a painful defeat for the leftist parties, which shows that voters prefer the new political elites and new faces that want to take the reins of political power and assume responsibility for the management of municipalities and regions.
Fourth, the urban/rural category emerged as important in the elections. This began before the Arab Spring (2011) and was important during the transition. It led to the elevation to official status in the 2011 constitution of Berber (Amazigh), a “rural” and, until then, marginalized language. Although the PJD dominated in regional elections in big cities, such as Rabat, Casablanca, Tangier, Fez, Marrakech, and Agadir, it fell short in the local councils, which are weighted towards rural areas. The urban voters voted pragmatically for the PJD as a reflection of their position opposing corruption and the status quo. The urban voters seemed to be satisfied with a four-year government of a coalition that undertook major structural and fiscal reforms, which addressed successfully the cumbersome subsidy system, froze public-sector employment, and reduced Morocco’s budget deficit. The PJD first came to power in 2011, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, mainly on an anti-corruption platform and with an agenda to fight the old guard that had dominated Morocco’s economy since 1956. The PJD’s rivals performed better in rural areas, because the PJD is more attentive to the demands of the urban middle class.
First, efficient as it is, the electoral system in Morocco still needs reform, because, with 30 political parties, it is difficult to produce a real winner. This is a complex issue, given the central position and real power of the monarchy, which is, nevertheless, very popular and widely seen as a stabilizing factor in a volatile region. The solution for many is for the monarchy to yield more power to the political parties.
Second, for Moroccans to understand the meaning and importance of elections, they need to realize that the main function of elections is to allow citizens to choose people who will make decisions on their behalf and who will be held accountable to the voters. This requires special attention to education and the empowerment of two important parts of Moroccan society—women and rural inhabitants—because the demands of these two sectors seem to be constantly marginalized and put off by the PJD-led government.