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The Islamists are back in Morocco. How did they do it?

A man casts his ballot at a polling station for the parliamentary elections in Rabat, Morocco, on Oct. 7. (Abdeljalil Bounhar/AP)

An Islamist party did something remarkable in Morocco last week: win reelection. The governing Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) managed to win almost one-third of the 395-member Parliament with a 43 percent voter turnout. With this victory, the PJD became the first Islamist party in Morocco’s modern history to lead two consecutive governments. No other Islamist party in the Arab world has managed such a feat, and in the broader Middle East only Turkey’s AKP delivering a similar repeat performance.

What explains the PJD’s victory in Morocco, especially in light of the unexceptional performance of Islamists in the region’s other recent elections? In a new research paper, co-authored with Abdullah Aydogan, we analyze the legislative behavior of political parties in Morocco’s 2011 to 2016 Parliament. We found that, put simply, the PJD prioritized the concerns of the broader Moroccan public rather than issues important to its Islamist base.

PJD comes to power in turbulent times

The PJD came to power in 2011 in the midst of turbulent times for the kingdom. Morocco witnessed significant levels of political instability in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Waves of protests swept the country orchestrated by the February 20th movement. Demonstrators demanded the establishment of a constitutional monarchy and a clear separation of power between the monarchy, and the legislative and judicial bodies.

To stifle the protests, King Mohammed VI dissolved Parliament and called for new elections after introducing substantive constitutional amendments. The constitutional referendum was approved by 98.5 percent of registered voters in July 2011, and the king ratified the new constitution in September 2011.

In elections held two months later, the PJD won the plurality of seats (107 seats out of 395) in Parliament. Led by Abdelilah Benkirane of the PJD, a new coalition government was formed with the Istiqlal Party, Party of Progress and Socialism (PPS) and the Popular Movement. Despite the rift between the PJD and the Istiqlal Party in 2013 over economic and subsidy reforms, the most recent Chamber of Representatives has played an important role in implementing many constitutional amendments.

Over the past five years, Parliament managed to pass a number of laws in regard to decentralization, judicial independence and the elimination of violence against women, among many others. However, other major problems remained unaddressed, such as the rights of the minorities, economic problems and, most importantly, the issue of rampant corruption in the country.

Legislators vs. public priorities in Morocco’s 9th Legislature

To better understand how politicians engaged with the public in Morocco, we collected a data set of about 10,500 parliamentary questions and draft bills from Morocco’s 9th legislature. We used the Comparative Agendas Project’s (CAP) coding scheme to measure issue prioritization. Each question and bill was coded to one of 25 main topic areas, such as education, health, etc.

To measure the priorities of the general public in Morocco, we coded the “most important problem” question from the fifth wave of the Afro-barometer. We matched the public’s priorities with those of legislators to identify issue congruence between political parties and their supporters and between parties and public opinion in general.

The results showed a significant level of similarity between the legislators in Parliament and the public’s priorities. Legislators in the lower house have been more concerned with issues such as health, transportation, education and energy. Their legislative activities are consistent with the public’s priorities, for the most part.

On the other hand, topics such as corruption, civil rights and minority issues have attracted the least attention of legislators — despite the paramount importance of these areas to the public, as demonstrated in the public opinion data.

Previous work on electoral politics in competitive authoritarian regimes argues that given the amount of clientelistic politics, existing political institutions (i.e., parties in parliaments) tend to distribute benefits to their support base, rather than to the general public. Generally, once in power, the political elites and parties will pay more attention to the priorities of the party’s supporters to be reelected.

The PJD was different. Contrary to these expectations, it proved to be more responsive to the general public than to the party’s supporters, particularly when it comes to legislative questions. In fact, our data shows that the PJD was two times more responsive to the priorities of the general public compared with its own supporters. The PJD’s high level of responsiveness to the priorities of the general public may partially explain why they won reelection.

The PJD proved less enthusiastic about certain issues, however, including combating corruption and the protection of minority rights. Corruption is a particularly important concern, not only for the Moroccan public but also for most citizens in the MENA region. As shown in our data, the former government led by the PJD did not perform well when it came to addressing the epidemic of corruption in most state institutions or the protection of minority and civil rights. This gap may be pleasing to the regime, which would prefer to not have a spotlight on such issues, but over time it could undermine the PJD’s ability to align its legislative agenda with popular concerns.

Marwa Shalaby is a fellow for the Middle East and the director of the Women’s Rights in the Middle East Program at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.