The Moroccan parliamentary elections, which took place on November 25th, are the latest example that the euphoria of the Arab Spring may have been premature. While the election results and the process itself represent positive signs for Moroccan political reform, the electoral contest should be interpreted as a victory for the crown—not the people. The results themselves are not particularly surprising. The Justice and Development Party (PJD), a moderate Islamist party, won the largest share of seats (107 out of 395) while the center-right party Istiqlal, which previously held the highest number of seats in the Moroccan parliament, came in second (60 out of 395). Istiqlal leader and outgoing Prime Minister Abbas al-Fassi has said that Istiqlal is willing to form a coalition with the PJD, which appears to represent a shift towards a greater role for the former opposition party. However, in reality neither the PJD nor Istiqlal are likely to challenge the regime.
The PJD has said that they will concentrate on economic reforms and fighting corruption instead of undertaking major reforms. Unlike Tunisia and Egypt where previously banned Islamist parties have only been able to openly participate politically in the wake of the Arab Spring, the PJD has held seats in parliament since 2002. In exchange for its participation, the PJD has remained loyal to King Mohammed VI and is therefore unlikely to seriously challenge his tight control over the Moroccan reform process. However, the PJD’s gain of sixty one seats reflects the growing success of moderate Islamist parties across the region, first demonstrated by the Islamic Ennahda Party’s success in the recent Tunisian elections.
According to the new constitution, the prime minister will come from the PJD since it has the highest percentage of seats in the incoming parliament. Given that the prime minister shapes state policy as head of the Council of Government and has newly granted powers to appoint ambassadors, CEOs of state-owned companies and provincial and regional governors, the position has newfound influence
Morocco should be applauded for carrying out a legitimately free and fair election. Morocco allowed domestic and international election observers, including the National Democratic Institute and the European Council, who have reported minimal irregularities in the voting process. But that should not obscure some of the major problems resulting from this political cycle.
The biggest problem with the Moroccan elections is that voter turnout at 45%, while a slight increase over the historically low turnout of 37% in the last election, is still remarkably low. A turnout of less than half of the country’s eligible voters signals that most of the Moroccan population remain unsatisfied with the king’s reform program and are unwilling to participate in the new “democratic” process. This could spell future trouble for the Moroccan regime as the protesters are unlikely to ease up after the elections.
Some might blame the low turnout on a boycott of the elections by the February 20 Movement, which has carried out regular protests against the Moroccan government since the beginning of the Arab Spring, but that is only one factor. Large portions of the Moroccan public have been disillusioned for decades with the façade of democratic reform and the inability of the parliament to oppose the monarchy. This disillusionment has resulted in a steady decline in voter turnout over previous election cycles.
A second area of concern is women’s rights and political participation. As part of the recent constitutional reform, 90 seats were added to the parliament, with 60 of those seats reserved for women and the remaining 30 reserved for candidates under age 40, a first in the Arab world. Quotas are a good first step to increase the presence of women in parliament, but a quota does little to address the deep social, cultural and practical inequalities between Moroccan men and women. Notably, the constitutional reform included a provision to “guarantee” civic, social and political equality between men and women, but the legal guarantee of equality is unlikely to impact the everyday lives of most Moroccan women.
Throughout the Arab Spring, King Mohammed has been highly skilled at manipulating the political reform process to ensure his continued control over Moroccan politics. Despite the new powers granted to the prime minister, the king still maintains control over national security and has the ability to dismiss the prime minister. Thus, regardless of the results, the ability of the Moroccan parliament to create genuine change is minimal. It appears that King Mohammad has once again successfully survived calls for reform.
Sarah E. Yerkes is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Government at Georgetown University.