On Friday, Morocco will hold its second parliamentary elections since the constitutional changes that followed the Arab Spring protests led by the Feb. 20 movement in 2011. The Party of Justice and Development (PJD), a moderate Islamist-oriented party which has led a coalition government since then, seeks to defend its lead against its chief rival, the Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), founded by Fouad Ali El Himma, a close friend and adviser to King Mohammed VI.
What’s at stake in this battle? The short answer: not much. There are good reasons to be skeptical that the outcome of the election will alter the political landscape in a meaningful way. Political science wisdom on democratic institutions sheds light on the limitations that confront all political parties in Morocco, whether they gain or lose seats in this week’s elections.
The first impediment: Morocco’s fragmented party system
Approximately 30 parties compete for the parliament’s 395 seats, 90 of which are reserved for women and candidates under 40. The number of parties complicates alliance formation: To create a coalition, the leading party must bring together parties with differing priorities and constituencies, which is no easy task. Competition weakens parties’ ability to present unified policies.
Coalitions can fall apart because of minor disagreements. In 2013, for instance, disputes over cabinet appointments and economic policies led the conservative Istiqlal Party to withdraw from the PJD-led coalition, prompting a crisis that lasted until the PJD formed an uneasy alliance with the National Rally of Independents (RNI), which PJD leader Abdelilah Benkirane had criticized during the 2011 election campaign.
The low threshold for party participation also encourages new parties to form. Rather than resolving intraparty disagreements, parties may splinter. The creation of new parties, and the overall number of parties competing, makes it difficult for voters to calculate which best represents their interests.
The second impediment: the balance of power between the legislature and the monarchy
The most serious institutional limitation in Morocco is the weakness of the parliament. The 2011 constitutional changes were lauded as a step toward empowering the legislature, but in reality, little changed. The parliament remains subordinate to the monarchy and its state apparatus, which includes the king’s advisers, government officials and the Ministry of the Interior. Politicians cannot criticize the king or his advisers without censure, and the king retains the power to dissolve the parliament.
Although the monarchy is ostensibly above the fray of electoral politics, in September the Ministry of the Interior rejected the application of a PJD candidate seeking to run for election in the third-largest city of Marrakesh, saying that the candidate, a conservative cleric, was guilty of hate speech. The PJD protested but replaced him with another candidate. Party leaders understand that their political careers depend upon continued deference to the monarchy. Benkirane has long asserted his loyalty to the monarchy, describing himself as a public servant in the “government of his majesty.”
Morocco’s political institutions limit the parliament’s efficacy
These two structural factors — party fragmentation and the weakness of the parliament vis-à-vis the monarchy — undermine the capacity of any victorious political party to address Morocco’s most pressing problems. One prominent problem is pervasive corruption, a major theme of the 2011 protests. The Feb. 20 movement and its supporters carried signs decrying corruption and asking for dignity. This demand resonated; Moroccans widely report (and lament) pressure to pay bribes and use personal connections in their interactions with the Moroccan state, whether to acquire a business permit, sway a judge or avoid harassment by the police.
During the 2011 election campaign, the PJD ran on an anti-corruption platform that helped it pull ahead of other prominent parties for the first time. Yet the PJD has been unable to make much headway on corruption over the past five years. Public-opinion polls reflect Moroccans’ frustration. In their analysis of the Arab Barometer III, which polled a representative sample of Moroccans in 2013 and 2014, Amaney Jamal and Michael Robbins show that 82 percent of Moroccans think that the state is corrupt and 91 percent say that wasta, or nepotism and connections, is important for gaining employment. In a 2015 survey, Matt Buehler found that 82 percent of his respondents think that personal connections affect court rulings.
The problem is that this balance of power shields the corrupt. There is little that a political party can do to punish corrupt officials and business leaders with close connections to the monarchy. The “deep state,” as Moroccans call it, is effectively off-limits to parliamentary oversight. For example, PAM’s founder was singled out as a symbol of corruption during the 2011 protests. He resigned as party leader, only to be appointed as a senior adviser to the king. An ally of the PJD recently called him a symbol of authoritarianism; the palace responded with a reprimand and a reminder that palace advisers are not to be dragged into the political fray.
The structural imbalance between the parliament and the monarchy also makes it difficult for party leaders to explain why they have failed to fulfill their campaign promises. Benkirane has recently blamed “tahakoum,” or authoritarianism, for Morocco’s problems, thereby hinting at institutional imbalances while refraining from direct criticism of the monarchy or specific people. He has continued to stress that the PJD has maintained a cooperative stance toward the monarchy over the past five years. It’s an awkward needle to thread — he must avoid assuming the blame himself, but he cannot deflect it onto the monarchy and its allies.
Party fragmentation and parliamentary weakness also affect voters. With parties pointing the finger at one another, or more vaguely at the system, it is difficult for voters to assign responsibility for the absence of progress on problems such as corruption. Voting for lesser-known parties may serve only to exacerbate fragmentation, complicate postelection coalition building and make the parliament even less effective. During interviews I conducted before the 2011 parliamentary elections, Moroccans would sometimes discuss the sincerity of political party leaders in an effort to estimate which leader would follow through on his promises. But it’s not only the will of party leaders that matters; the institutional context makes it difficult for voters to hold parties accountable at the ballot box.
Historically low turnout suggests that Moroccans are well aware of the parliament’s limits. Pro-democracy activists, grouped in Annahj Addemocrati (the Democratic Way), have issued a boycott of the elections in protest of politics-as-usual in the monarchy.
Party competition increases as the election approaches
In the context of party fragmentation and overall parliamentary weakness, it’s worth asking just how much this week’s election matters. In the run-up to the election, the rivalry between the PAM and the PJD has intensified, with the PAM seeking to appeal to anti-Islamist sentiment, while the PJD attempts to position itself as a genuine anti-establishment party. But the platforms of the two parties differ only superficially, as Riccardo Fabiani’s recent article for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace points out.
Moroccan parties are largely clientelistic. Parties seek seats in parliament not to advance an ideological agenda, but to gain access to the patronage networks that flow from the monarchy. Voracious rivalry serves to preserve the fiction that there is a lot at stake this Friday, but parties’ dependence on their ties to the monarchy means that there really is no genuine opposition party participating in the elections. Only the Fédération de la Gauche Démocratique (FGD), an alliance of three leftist parties supported by many pro-democracy activists, offers an ideological alternative to the status quo, but it lacks the clientelistic ties needed to win a significant number of seats.
Political conditions favor stasis in Morocco
It is a disappointing state of affairs for those who hoped that the 2011 changes would empower the parliament and produce greater transparency and accountability. Pressure for change is also unlikely to come from outside the country’s political institutions, at least in the near term. One of the lessons of the Arab Spring was that street protests might be more effective at pushing for change than the region’s semi-authoritarian parliaments, but since 2011, the regime has cracked down on human rights activists, independent journalists and pro-democracy activists, arresting members of the opposition on trumped-up charges such as public drunkenness, adultery or impeding police officers acting in the line of duty. The government has also continued to thwart the independent press. Further, instability and conflict in the wider Arab region probably have made contentious politics less appealing to the wider Moroccan public.
The only actor empowered to change the status quo is not the parliament or the street but the monarchy itself. There are few incentives for the king to take the necessary steps to improve the country’s political institutions. Yet unlike a politician who is constrained by term limits and electoral cycles, a king has the ability to plan for the long term. And in the long term, the incentive structure favors institutional change. The problems that sent Moroccans onto the street in mass numbers in 2011 have not been solved. Corruption, unemployment and low economic growth will doubtless continue to prompt pleas for change. Hollow changes may not stave off this pressure indefinitely. The king may decide to offer a slow but sure transformation toward a more even balance of power, greater transparency and more democratic participation. Until then, another round of elections is unlikely to produce progress toward democracy.
Adria Lawrence is an associate professor of political science at Yale University.