Last Friday, Moroccans voted in the second legislative elections since the 2011 constitutional reforms. Some 30 parties ran in a hotly contested race for the 395 parliamentary seats, but the ruling Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD) again secured a plurality. While the elections were hailed as proof of progress, they largely reinforced regime authority. The absence of a majority winner and the continuing ideological fragmentation of the political system furthers the institutional imbalance of power between the palace and the government.
The limitations on political actors in Morocco may have actually created more space for the Islamist party. Rival parties have struggled to separate themselves from popular complaints with the regime. Even after years in government, many Moroccans see the PJD as transparent and incorruptible, a perception that the party has used to its advantage.
Why it’s important that an Islamist party won again
The PJD ran a grass-roots campaign, with a mass mobilization network of supporters, winning 125 seats in the parliament and consolidating past electoral gains. In a region where Islamist parties’ political experiments have been short-lived, the PJD is on its way toward a second term at the helm of the government in Morocco. On Monday, King Mohammed VI named PJD leader Abdelilah Benkirane to his second term as prime minister. The electoral success of the PJD is a further testament to its impressive campaign machine and organization in mostly urban centers, but also due to a low 43 percent voter turnout, slightly lower than the 45 percent voter participation in the legislative elections in 2011.
Leading up to the elections, Benkirane launched ads touting his party as the “party of the people,” a subtle reference to his main rival, the Party of the Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), which is seen as a palace puppet. Benkirane has continued to walk a tight rope of appearing loyal to the regime, while leveling a subliminal critique of unelected shadow palace government for what he calls “tahakoum” or authoritarian political control.
Even in the hours before the Ministry of the Interior announced official results, Benkirane was engaged in his usual doublespeak toward the regime when he suggested the results might be subject to state manipulation. But when it was clear that his party had won the plurality of the seats, the mercurial leader hailed the results as a “victory for democracy” and public approval of his government’s performance on major socioeconomic issues.
Islamist success among low voter turnout
The PJD’s continued electoral success rested on its ability to motivate a large portion of the 15.7 million registered voters to cast their ballots for the party. But the low voter turnout is an indictment of the system of engineered elections in Morocco. The voter participation is further amplified in the context of the 28 million eligible voters in Morocco, in effect setting the real voter turnout at 23 percent last Friday. This is a particularly telling sign of Moroccans’ lack of confidence in not just the political parties but also the electoral system as a whole.
However, this low voter turnout favored the PJD political machine, which was able to mobilize its base to get to the polls. During the electoral campaign, the PJD’s strategy didn’t solely focus on its base. It sought to broaden its electoral constituencies by including Salafi Islamist candidates, one of whom, H’mad al-Qabbaj, was rejected by the Ministry of the Interior in a clear signal that the state still controls the political space and discourse.
This was a risky, albeit calculated, strategy for the PJD as a moderate Islamist party that has accepted the regime’s rules of the political game. Testing the limits of regime acceptance proved to be a point of contention between the party and its opponents, who orchestrated anti-PJD protests in Casablanca to denounce the party’s Islamist origins.
The pro-monarchy party made gains too
But the PJD wasn’t the only success story on Friday. Its main rival, the pro-palace PAM came in second with 102 seats, effectively doubling its parliamentary seats from 2011. While the PJD’s predicament is its doublespeak, the PAM’s quandary lies in its close association with the palace. Its founder and de facto leader Fouad Ali al-Himma is a close adviser to the king. Al-Himma’s life and formative political experiences have been informed by his palace education alongside Mohammed VI and by an equally crucial time in the Ministry of the Interior. Over his career, al-Himma has mastered the core principles of the makhzen (deep authoritarian state structure) in the kingdom, namely the division of the political scene, electoral engineering and the drowning political dissent with palace-friendly parties in the name of “rationalization of the party system.”
The PAM’s regime ties are well-known and account for its lack of credibility among many voters in Morocco. But the palace doesn’t allow open criticism of its close association with al-Himma. When the current Minister of Housing and Urban Policy, and Secretary General of the leftist Party for Progress and Socialism (PPS), Nabil Ben Abdallah, alluded to al-Himma’s relationship with the PAM, the royal cabinet issued an unprecedented communiqué chiding the minister for his comments. In a carefully planned electoral system, the regime sets the boundaries of acceptable political discourse.
Especially in the post-Arab uprisings era, the palace is less tolerant of any statements linking it to the elections. Even when the statement comes from a makhzenite politician like Benabdallah — who was instrumental in state repression of the news media as a minister of communication from 2002 to 2007 — the regime is reluctant to lose control of the boundaries of tolerable political speech. Interestingly, Benabdallah’s PPS, and other leftist parties, suffered the steepest decline in electoral gains last Friday.
Bipolar party winners, but no cohesive ideologies
The election results consolidate the rise of a bipolar PJD/PAM political party system in Morocco, while historical parties decline. Furthermore, election outcomes once again reinforce the lack of ideological consistency in the party system in Morocco. Today, no main political party has a coherent ideology: Even the PJD is, at this point, only loosely Islamist.
This ideological maelstrom will inevitably bring about a fragmented, ideologically inchoate coalition government led by an electorally confident, but institutionally weakened PJD. Lacking a majority of the seats in the parliament, the PJD’s Benkirane will once again have to extend his hand across the aisle to other parties, notably the historical nationalist-conservative al-Istiqlal party, which came in third in the elections with 46 seats as well as leftist parties. A pragmatic party, the PJD understands the reality of power politics in the Moroccan edifice and, at times, has demonstrated its willingness to sacrifice its Islamist philosophy for political power.
The PJD electoral success illustrates the rise of a new breed of Islamism, which is almost pragmatically secular and less ideologically tied to the core ethos of Islamism. For the PJD, like Ennahda in Tunisia, Islam is not din wa dawla (religion and state) anymore. This Islamism is a strategy of political action that seeks to separate its political from its da’wist (preaching) religious movement. Decades of political learning within Morocco’s circumscribed political space created this adaptation. The PJD has realized that a rigid Islamist ideology would not be conducive to its own existence and would entail, as Benkirane told me during my field work, “rejection and confrontation yielding no results.”
This pragmatic style of governance has so far paid great electoral dividends. The challenge for the PJD will be to sustain its dual role of working within the system, while seeking to address its main challenges like corruption. Ultimately, the Islamist party’s strategy of playing “games in multiple arenas” depends on regime tolerance and the enduring appeal of its narrative of authenticity among the plurality of the electorate in Morocco.