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Islamists Win Moroccan Elections, But Forming Coalition Could be Tough

CASABLANCA, MOROCCO - OCTOBER 7: A citizen is seen at a polling station to cast his vote during the Parliamentary elections in Casablanca, Morocco on October 7, 2016. Jalal Morchidi / Anadolu Agency
A citizen is casting his vote during the Parliamentary elections in a polling station in Casablanca, Morocco on 7 October 2016. Photo Jalal Morchidi

Morocco’s 7 October 2016 parliamentary elections, the second of their kind since the 2011 referendum on constitutional reform, gave the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) a majority of seats (125 out of 395, 18 more than in 2012). PJD’s main rival, the modernist Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM), won 102 seats, a gain of 55. The conservative Istiqlal party, the Popular Movement and the Progress and Socialism Party all saw a sharp decline in the number of votes.

The results have not been contested; indeed, the elections were largely seen as transparent and free of serious breaches of democracy.

Even so, the results came as a surprise to many, mainly because PJD’s victory did not seem to be hindered by its unpopular economic and social reforms, among them a higher retirement age and the scrapping of the fuel subsidy. Further, most polls predicted that PAM would win.

An analysis of the various reactions may be synthesized as follows: PJD’s win is due to a lack of alternatives, the weakness or aging of the other parties and, contrary to expectations, the sanction vote impacted the other parties but not PJD.

The lack of alternatives seems to be linked to the perception of PJD as a non-corrupt party in a field of corrupt and state-backed parties. PJD also succeeded in galvanizing a loyal supporter base and its anti-corruption message played well in the run-up to the elections.

PAM also succeeded in attracting large numbers of voters. The most important part of its agenda is combatting conservative ideas and encouraging progress and modernity. The main advantage of this party is that in spite of being close to the palace, it has never been in power, so voters are curious to see what it has to offer. However, it was not helped by the turnout, which, at 43 per cent, was far below expectations and 2 per cent lower than in 2011.

Several explanations may be advanced here. First, youth disillusionment with elections, which is not unique to Morocco. Second, politics in general no longer enjoys a good reputation and has come to be seen as a means of self-enrichment at the expense of public interests. Third, there is a growing sentiment that elections are not an efficient tool for change, given that change comes from above. Fourth, elections are largely perceived as a free market of promises that are quickly forgotten when the show is over. Finally, many citizens do not vote for subjective reasons ranging from a refusal to exercise their right to vote, to a statement of political independence.

In Morocco, who benefits from low turnout? In the absence of a reliable breakdown of the electorate or independent opinion surveys, it seems the greatest beneficiary is PJD, with a mass of disciplined and loyal voters. This is in contrast to a fragmented left, which is often accused of non-democratic practices.

Another important factor is the existence of two opposing forces in Moroccan politics: a conservative one, PJD, and a modernist one, PAM. This begs the question of whether Morocco is entering an era of a two-party system.

Whatever the case, PJD has not only consolidated its position on the political scene, it has also secured more seats in the parliament and expanded its influence from the urban to the rural areas.

One cannot overlook the contribution of PJD’s leader in the party’s ascension. Since being appointed prime minister in 2011, Abdelilah Benkirane has cultivated the image of a man not devoid of spontaneity and with a desire to return to a form of politics that puts public interests first.

He has succeeded in mobilizing his supporters and co-opting public opinion, even going so far as crying in public to win voter sympathy. Moreover, he has pursued economic reforms to reduce the budget deficit and tackle subsidies, despite their lack of popularity.

As for PAM, although it was unable to outperform PJD, it scored high, mainly by attracting voters from other, smaller parties. It has ruled out an alliance with the Islamists, but vowed to stay in the opposition. This means that the PJD will potentially need to partner with at least three other parties to secure a majority. The question for PAM now is: can its modernist project continue to attract voters while keeping the ideals of more jobs and more hope alive?

Seen from both a national and international perspective, the election results confirm Morocco’s image as a country that is capable of integrating the various political forces and the dynamics they generate. This fact is of extreme importance in a region where violence and instability have become the norm.

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