The Moroccan elections results cannot be understood without an appreciation of the whirlwind of events that have unfolded in the country since the Arab Spring of 2011. Morocco was not immune from the wave of discontent that had brought down Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and Muammar al-Gaddafi in Libya. Protests broke out across Morocco as a disillusioned population took to the streets protesting the lack of employment and opportunities, poor socio-economic conditions, autocracy, and corruption.
King Mohamed VI reacted quickly. Rather than antagonize and resist the protests as other regional autocrats had tried, the King instead scrambled to offer concessions to contain the escalating public discontent. Two weeks after the outbreak of the protests in March 2011, the King announced he would introduce sweeping constitutional reforms. In June 2011, the King followed up with a series of amendments that included devolving the power to appoint government officials and dissolve parliament to an elected Prime Minister. The proposed changes were rammed through a referendum with limited public debate and passed. The King then insisted on early parliamentary elections to be held that year, rather than delay to the originally appointed date set for the year after.
The impact of the King’s announcements was clear. The swiftness of his reaction had tempered the potency of the protests even as he continued to hold onto powers related to security, foreign policy, and the economy. Perhaps fearful of losing momentum, the political parties agreed to early elections which resoundingly delivered the mercurial Abdelilah Benkirane to power at the head of the Islamist Justice and Development party (PJD).
Morocco’s election laws ensure that no party can secure a majority. Historically, this has allowed the palace to check the country’s elected bodies.
Morocco’s election laws ensure that no party can secure a majority. Historically, this has allowed the palace to check the country’s elected bodies and contain any potential threat to the authority of the king. In 2011, the absence of a majority meant that the newly elected PJD was forced to enter into a coalition with the old “Istiqlal” party, which was founded after the independence of the country and was perceived to be close to the King.
The result was an awkward government coalition that was marked more by Benkirane’s public disclosures of tensions and political wrestling with the palace than any actual successful implementation of policy. Benkirane understood that he had been elected to manifest the “gains” of the popular protests and revamp the system, and he also understood that his constitutional powers were limited despite the King’s “reforms.” In publicly revealing the tensions between his government and the palace, Benkirane was able to maintain enough public pressure on the King to allow greater room for maneuver.
However, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s coup against the democratically-elected Mohamed Morsi in Egypt in 2013, and the subsequent fall of Ennahda’s government in Tunisia, brought significant pressure to bear on Benkirane and the PJD. The PJD’s coalition partner “Istiqlal” resigned to amplify the domestic pressure on the Islamists, as the palace saw an opportunity to seize back what it had conceded to the Arab Spring protests.
Yet, when faced between the choice of risking a public backlash by aggressively imposing itself on a popular party that might draw more sympathy in opposition or offering a new coalition partnership on more favorable terms, the palace chose the latter. After the withdrawal of Istiqlal, the PJD found a new partner in another ally of the palace, the National Rally of Independents (RNI).
Benkirane continued to balance between maintaining a working relationship with the monarchy and resisting its attempts to assert itself by openly blaming it for hindering his ability to enact reforms. In 2016, the Moroccan public appeared to endorse Benkirane against the palace by giving the PJD another resounding victory with even more votes and seats than in 2011.
However, Benkirane would not benefit from this latest popular endorsement. None of the opposing political parties associated with the palace would join him in a coalition. To observers, it appeared that the King had ordered his allies in Parliament not to join Benkirane’s government. After five months of political logjam and failure to form a government, Benkirane was dismissed by the King and replaced with his more pliant comrade Saadedine Othmani.
The dismissal of Benkirane highlighted shifts in the political dynamics. The palace no longer had the same fear as in 2011.
After Benkirane’s dismissal, the opposing parties and allies of the palace joined Othmani’s coalition. However, the dismissal of Benkirane highlighted shifts in the political dynamics. The palace no longer had the same fear as in 2011. Despite the stronger mandate for Benkirane, the monarchy felt confident enough to undermine his attempts at forming a government. Moreover, the appointment of the PJD’s Othmani in Benkirane’s stead demonstrated an acute awareness of the growing fissures emerging among the Islamists, which it took full advantage of.
Othmani, who is an Islamist himself, would go on to rule a government in which he had little influence. Despite widespread anger among his party base, Othmani signed off on major palace proposals he opposed. For example, he agreed to legalize cannabis for medical use and to change the language used to teach technical high school subjects such as science and mathematics from Arabic to French, albeit there were good reasons for such reforms. Instead of resigning and putting the palace in a bind, Othmani time and again preferred to continue in his role and swallow the embarrassment. Furthermore, despite popular opposition, he signed off on Morocco’s normalization with Israel.
In a final blow, new election laws were introduced in 2018. This was perhaps the most glaring example of how much the power dynamics in Morocco had changed since 2011. Under the new rules, the vote share of the PJD that had translated to 125 seats in 2016 would in future elections shrink to around 80 seats. Othmani was again powerless to prevent its enshrinement into law.
In 2021, the PJD is no longer the party it was in 2011. Its claim to Islamism is undermined by Othamni’s signature on the normalization bill. Their claim to economic and judicial reform is contradicted by the ongoing socio-economic woes in the country. More importantly, their claim as the party most capable of pushing back against the “system” in favor of the people has been contested by their failure over the past decade to do just that. The PJD was voted in to push back against the status quo and empower the people. Those who voted for the Islamists will argue that they did their part in 2011 and 2016 in delivering them to a position where they might challenge the system. Instead, the PJD under Saadeddine Othmani ended up being now perceived as incompetent and part of the “system.” This perhaps goes some way to explaining the crushing nature of their defeat in the recent elections.
The Arab Spring protests did not take place so as to deliver a specific party to power.
Moreover, in 2011, the Arab Spring protests did not take place so as to deliver a specific party to power. They took place because of a lack of employment opportunities, socio-economic deprivation, and systematic corruption. Over ten years, there is a sense among Moroccans that these issues still have not been addressed. Meanwhile, the feeling of frustration has been compounded by the incessant parliamentary infighting that has compromised the image of the elected institution in the eyes of the public and the lack of vision and progressive socio-economic agenda by the PJD
The palace however appears to be wary of the exasperated public sentiment, and aware of the growing disillusionment with an election process and parliament that it considers fundamental in acting as a buffer against direct accountability. It is for this reason that the elections were held on the same day as the local municipal elections so as to improve voter turnout.
The winner, Aziz Akhanouch – President of the National Rally of Independents (RNI) party – is a known ally of the palace. In this regard, there will be a perception that the King is now resurgent after having carefully navigated attempts to wrest powers in favor of elected bodies.
Nonetheless, the underlying frustrations that gave rise to the Arab Spring remain. In its decade-long aggressive bid to crush the momentum of the popular protests, the palace has inadvertently confirmed the suspicion of many ordinary Moroccans: the election process is defunct and incapable of bringing change, irrespective of who wins. Yet, any concerns over the implications of this realization will be tempered for now by relief at the absence of political parties capable of channeling the people’s disillusionment.
The focus for the new government will be to address the current socio-economic woes, so as to ease public discontent and dissuade Moroccans from seeking constitutional or political reforms in the manner they did in 2011. To be sure, King Mohamed VI is not inherently averse to economic reform, and has garnered a reputation over the years for being more receptive than his father was. To what extent he will be able to placate Moroccans now that he has successfully resisted their aspirations for greater agency is anyone’s guess.