Moroccans choose liberalism and punish Islamists
Legislative elections in Morocco may seem like a topic that has little to do with American interests, but the truth is that the political stability of a country like Morocco, who has been a longstanding ally of the United States even before we had won our independence from Britain, is organically linked to our interests. It is noteworthy that the Moroccan experience with democratic principles is marked by sobriety, calmness, and a trend line that shows a positive upward curve — all of which makes Morocco a unique case that is distinguished from the rest of the Middle East and North Africa region.
On the morning of Thursday, September 9, 2021, the Moroccan Minister of Interior announced the preliminary results of the legislative and local elections in Morocco, which came to confirm the expectations of observers of a resounding loss for the Justice and Development Party, an Islamist party, which led the government for ten years from 2011 to 2021.
With the National Rally of Independents party advancing (97 seats) followed by the Authenticity and Modernity Party (82) and the Istiqlal Party (78), it is easy to say that Moroccans have chosen the classical liberal model of self-government based in freedom and opportunity without compromising some of the traditional peculiarities represented by the Istiqlal Party in its historical dimensions.
Political checks and balances in Morocco
If the checks and balances in Morocco’s parliamentary system were founded on the principle of giving importance to the citizen’s vote, and appreciating the role played by each party, then these controls or checks make it clear that even the party that wins the most votes does not have absolute power or have a blank check to govern. Rather, the alliances or coalitions required to form a majority government, can turn the smallest party in the electoral race into an important factor and a voice or perspective that must be heard.
By the Chapter 47 of the 2011 Moroccan Constitution, the King is called to assign the leader of the party that won the most votes to form the government. The important role of royal arbitration in the forming of the democratically elected legislature in Morocco helps provide stability and gives voice to the will of the people and enriches the Moroccan democratic experience because of the deep ties that unite the Moroccan people to their kings and the trust that Moroccans place in the person of the king, his decisions, and appointments.
The relationship that binds the Moroccan citizenry to the monarchy has turned into a social and spiritual heritage that goes beyond the details of the political game — a matter that may be difficult for some Americans to understand. But the Middle East has not historically enjoyed stability and democracy — whereas Morocco has. Simply stated, their system is working on a very practical level.
Justice and Development Party mistakes
The role of the king, whether by appointing or dismissing the head of the government, and his interventions between constitutional institutions does not waive the responsibility of the majority government to serve the public’s interest and does not exempt it from accountability at the ballot box.
For example, the Justice and Development Party lost public support because of legislative missteps and then it made matters even worse with a concerted effort to evade responsibility for those errors and pass the blame to the palace. Many statements by the outgoing, Saad Eddin El Othmani, and before him, Abdelilah Ben Kiran, reflected this refusal to take responsibility for their missteps. This attempt at passing the buck only highlighted for the average Moroccan voter that the Islamist party leadership was not up to the rigors of leading the nation.
The Moroccan monarch succeeded in saving the face of the Islamist government on several occasions — the most recent of which was his direct supervision of the special committee to confront the Coronavirus pandemic, and his direct supervision of the negotiations with Spain during the recent crisis that erupted after Madrid sheltered the leader of the separatist Polisario movement. Additionally, the monarch’s supervision of the Sahara issue, his wise management of Morocco’s relations with the rest of the world, and his shuttle tours in the African continent are further evidence of the stability that the monarchy provided. All these factors highlighted that the Islamist party was failing and that the monarch was filling in the gaps and obtaining important victories and gains for Morocco.
The Justice and Development Party has tried to combine the political presentation provided by the constitution with the religious and spiritual background of Moroccans, which the outgoing party has promoted in many ways and through means that did not always respect the neutrality of the Islamic religion in public life. The spiritual leadership of all Moroccans, be they Muslims, Christians, or Jews, belongs to the king as the Commander of the Faithful. It is worth noting that the Moroccan monarchy refused to cooperate with Nazi demands during World War II. This heritage is an important part of the success that Morocco has enjoyed in its experience with representative democracy and respect for minorities.
Excessive populism, the exploitation of voters’ emotions, and the Justice and Development Party’s refusal to resolve many important issues, such as the marriage of minors, put the party in the serious dilemma of reconciling its Islamic roots and the recognized contraints on government exercising power in a pluralistic Moroccan society that is open to the world with its modernity and all its variables.
The Moroccan people voted for change
Over the last decade the Justice and Development Party proved itself to be outside the natural Moroccan partisan components which can be divided into three major groups: (i) right-wing (conservative) parties; (ii) left-wing parties (formerly socialist-oriented); and (iii) centrist or slightly liberal parties (with a social democratic orientation). Meanwhile, parties with an Islamic background remain largely alien to the Moroccan political body, despite their penetration and apparent proximity to the masses. The bottom line is that concealing their failures by employing religious slogans could only work for so long before the people saw through the ploy.
It is impossible to maintain governmental harmony and achieve results desired by the people if the primary governing philosophy of the ruling party is merely a rhetorical ploy and it consistently seeks to evade responsibility for its failures. Perhaps the cracks in the first government of the Justice and Development Party during the era of Abdelilah Benkirane are best understood as caused by a lack of commitment to pluralism and focusing on extraneous issues.
The factors and circumstances that led Moroccans to vote for the Justice and Development Party in 2011 and 2016 no longer exist. And the Moroccan people saw with their own eyes that a political party focused primarily on religion have proven unable to govern reliable in the Middle East and have been resultant to adapt to modern governance patterns.
The Islamists in Morocco were granted 10 full years to prove they could govern in a democratic and reliable manner. They began their rule in 2011 with a new constitution that was a qualitative leap forward in the history of Morocco and the Middle East. This step forward was not possible for the rest of the Islamic parties in the Arab world. For example, the military elite in Algeria turned against the results of the ballot box that resulted in the victory of the Islamic Salvation Front in 1991. And the experience with Islamist rule in Egypt lasted only one year, which ended with their removal by the army. But Morocco’s traditions and constitution and monarchy allowed Morocco to have a far better outcome.
Even if we assume that the decade of the Justice and Development Party’s rule was on balance positive, ten years in power were enough for the Moroccan voter to desire change, and actively search for alternatives. And for some, it could have been a desire for change for the sake of change. But also, the changing mood of the Moroccan electorate, and the shifts in the geographic and demographic fabric of Moroccan voter rolls tended to be in opposition to the ruling party. This is something that has become almost a tradition in many democratic countries, especially the United States, where it is rare for a Republican or Democratic majority in either chamber of Congress to last for more than a few electoral terms.
Big projects era
Observers consider that Morocco 2021 and the years that follow will be the launch of many major social and economic projects, and that the review of the development model, which was presented to King Mohammed VI in May of 2021, carried a unique vision, aimed at overcoming the obstacles that have previously prevented the achievement of qualitative leaps forward in terms of opportunity and economic wellbeing, and education. The vision and approach of this proposal contains strong elements of innovation and reform, and the plan will require the contribution of all Moroccan political and social components.
Did the Justice and Development Party have the ability and will power to lead Morocco towards this comprehensive change after ten years of confusion and failure? The popular answer was frank and clear and thus, the ruling party was voted out in an overwhelming fashion.
Moroccans’ tendency towards liberal-oriented parties is not a coincidence as much as it is in harmony with the nature of the challenges and transformations that the country faces. Unlike the traditional parties, whether left or right, or even centrist parties, the experience of Islamist rule in Morocco did not provide any confidence that it had the leadership skills to take responsibility for this new development plan. In this regard, many experts affirm that the real reasons behind the lack of progress in achieving public policy victories and reforms that were outlined by the Moroccan monarch between 2000 and 2007 can be laid at the feet of the succeeding majority governments who for more than two decades failed to develop logistical tools or to work proactively towards the monarch’s bold ideas.
The new alternative and the danger of systematic obstruction
Most of my Moroccan friends assure me that what they expect from the next government led by the National Rally of Independents is much more than what they expected from any previous government. The challenges facing the next government are many and varied. There are both economic and social challenges in addition to the problems that resulted from the Covid-19 pandemic and the consequences that will continue to manifest themselves. But the tone of optimism remains dominant and strong among most of the people with whom I spoke.
The first statements of the Secretary-General of the National Rally of Independents also confirmed this tone of optimism, as he said, “The electoral program of the Liberals, which includes five commitments and 25 measures, will form the basis for negotiations with the national parties to build a strong, harmonious majority that breaks with the past and is united by a unified vision and a government program.” He added that his party aspires to form a solid majority capable of activating the major trends and structuring projects launched by the king.
As of the writing of this article, it has not yet been possible to know the names of the parties that will group together to form the government, nor do we know which ones will choose the ranks of the opposition. It is certain that the Justice and Development Party, with only 12 seats, no longer has many cards in the Parliament. However, some believe that the party’s initiation of the use of the language of grievance and questioning the results may be a prelude to the tactic of obstruction.
But the question that arises is how this party, after this great defeat, leads any obstruction?
Finally, I do not want to exclude the possibility of the party trying to re-invent itself through a complete break with its old leaders. After a crushing electoral defeat, the party should naturally seek some self-reflection and take corrective action. Thus, the party could choose to move forward with a new generation of leaders who feel no need to repeat or defend past party missteps. While this could lead to a split within the party, it would seem wise to move on from an approach and philosophy that was so completely rejected by Moroccan people. But the good news is that despite a big shift in electoral power, Morocco is a stable and reliable nation and a strong ally of America. With all the troubles in the world today and all the uncertainty, having a stable, reliable friend in the Middle East that values representative democracy, pluralism, and protecting the rights and dignity of its citizens is very much in America’s interest. Sure, Moroccans are the biggest winners with their constitutional system. But America is also benefited by the stability and reliability that their system provides. That’s a win-win.
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