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Morocco and the ‘third way’ process of change

November 2, 2016 at 10:50 am

The largest protests in Morocco since 2011 erupted last week in several cities after the crushing to death of a fish vendor in a garbage truck. Some news reports drew parallels to Tunisia’s Mohammed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation after his wares were confiscated sparked off a wave of pro-democracy protests in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region. However, the protests in Morocco are unlikely to germinate anything more than a demand for a responsive government to address issues of police violence.

While the Head of the Government Abdelilah Benkirane urged his party members and supporters to stay away from the protests, the demonstrations proceeded without interference from the authorities. King Mohammed VI ordered the Ministry of the Interior to convey his personal condolences, and to investigate and try those responsible; this appeared to reassure the victim’s family, who then decried the volatile climate as being stoked by lies and political manipulation.

The responses of the major political actors to these recent protests are instrumental in elucidating how people’s dissatisfactions are managed and eventually defused by a long-standing ruling philosophy that ensures the continued stability of the monarchy; when people are enraged, do not give them reason to become even more enraged. The following sets out why this ruling philosophy seems to work in Morocco, and is likely to continue to do so in the future.

Morocco’s “third way” process of change

King Mohammed VI’s speed in addressing the demands of the youth-led protests in 2011, with constitutional reforms that transferred some of his powers to an elected parliament, was hailed as the Moroccan “third way” process of change; a partnership between the king and politicians towards gradual democratisation. The other two ways played out in the MENA region were bloody revolution and autocratic repression.

Five years after the Arab Spring, Morocco’s elections in October show that the country’s “third way” process of change has led to a win-win situation for the main political actors, where non-violent and free electoral politics is normalised and monarchical power structures remain intact.

If one’s measure of success of the “third way” is a dismantling of the country’s semi-authoritarian power structures, then the process has been an abject failure. Success, though, can be measured in other ways: in the fact that the king is now obliged to let the people choose their political representatives, for example, which is a concession that cannot be reversed without repercussions on his standing; or that political contests can proceed in a stable environment.

Although widely perceived to be the monarchy’s least favoured choice, the ready acceptance by the king last month of the Islamist-oriented Justice and Development Party’s (PJD) second consecutive parliamentary election win since the 2011 reforms is reflective of the progress made.

Significance of Morocco’s 2016 parliamentary election results

The two parties with the largest votes share one common feature. Rather than challenge the status quo, they work within the boundaries of the monarchical system, and this appears to appeal to the electorate.

The PJD managed to increase its number of seats from 107 to 125 (out of the 395 available) despite a campaign fraught with negative media coverage. This included a sex scandal involving two PJD-linked political leaders; strong criticism over its performance during the first term in office; and an intense contest featuring over 30 political parties with a myriad of agendas and ideological bents.

Even more remarkable was the rise of the seven-year old Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM), which is perceived to be linked closely to the monarchy; it more than doubled its seats from the 47 it won in 2011 to 102.

The two parties’ central messaging is similar, the main thrust being a promise not to jeopardise the monarchy – which is cast as the country’s anchor of stability after God – even as each endeavours to address issues of corruption, unemployment and economic growth, that are the prime concerns of an electorate mindful of regional instabilities.

The parties that clung to archaic ideological messaging or espoused an alternative but radical political vision – such as the transition to a parliamentary system, with nominal powers for the king – performed dismally at the polls.

Good emanates from the king

While the normalisation of electoral politics is a healthy development, the low voter turnout at 43 per cent is indicative that a large segment of society remains disengaged from participating in the political process, despite the reforms. The system in place prevents any single party from winning an absolute majority, which necessitates the formation of a coalition government. The PJD and PAM have already ruled out working together, which means a PJD-led coalition government with smaller parties that carry even less of a mandate. This might entrench further the bipolar and partisan politicking evident between the two leading parties and divert the focus from the issues about which most people care.

Such a state of affairs will encourage people to continue to look to the monarchy for change rather than the politicians who they have elected into office. This reinforces the mindset that good can only emanate from the king.

Continuity of the makhzen

While the PJD had tackled issues such as reducing the budget deficit and state subsidies successfully during its first term, it lacks the political power to tackle issues of corruption and income inequalities that are embedded in the institutions still firmly in the purview of the king and the makhzen (state apparatus). The failure of the politicians, thus far, to confront the vested interests of the makhzen stems from not only an unwillingness to engage in a fruitless confrontation with the monarchy, but also an unwillingness to incur a political backlash from a populace that seems not to want to direct its disaffection at the king. One reason for this is that the king’s traditional and religious appeal remains deeply rooted in society, undoubtedly bolstered by his high-profile role and duties as Amir al-Mu’minin (commander of the faithful).

More importantly, the makhzen has had an uninterrupted history of adapting itself to a changing environment in order to maintain the authority of the monarchy; not even colonialism, which had divided Moroccan territory, broke the continuity of the makhzen.

The late King Hassan II once noted, “Morocco is a lion that you must guide with a leash. He must never feel the chain. When he pulls too hard, I give in a bit, and when he eases up, I pull.”

One might say that this is the ruling philosophy that underpins the “third way” in Morocco; it is unique and not replicable anywhere else.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.