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A sad time for Morocco’s nascent democracy

January 20, 2017 at 10:44 am

While the Moroccan public are increasingly irritated at the obstacles delaying the formation of the second post-2011 government, the three-month political void does little to reward voters’ perseverance on 7 October. Last year’s election saw most party leaders abstaining from participating in person; their campaigns were timid in recognition of the strong backing that the administrative elite had prepared for the Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM). However, despite extensive media and administrative backing, given PAM’s weaknesses and pitfalls it could not dissuade voters from enabling the Justice and Development Party (PJD) to challenge official structures and win the election again. This explains the ongoing, nervous post-election developments, but will commitment to the public good ease tensions?

King Mohammed VI has been trying hard to inculcate the image of a neutral mediator. That is why he named the PJD’s Abdelilah Benkiran as prime minister-designate immediately after the election. In his Dakar speech, the monarch promised to ensure the building of a strong government based not on vote calculus but on capacities to meet a clear agenda of priorities. This was possibly a hint at various candidates’ limited expertise or lack of talent which would make it difficult for them to tackle Morocco’s strategic challenges.

Yet, many of the flaws from which the parties suffer result from state tactics and guardianship. High calibre experts usually steer clear of political parties lest corruption tarnishes their reputations; distancing themselves from the administration, meanwhile, could jeopardise their interests. Furthermore, state investment in parties’ false diversity not only keeps their democracy aspirations under control but has also engendered a general sense of despair, especially pre-2011. Thus, weakened parties usually accept leaders parachuted in from outside.

Issues regarding the Western Sahara put Morocco between the hammer and the anvil. Solving disagreements to reach a government-forming consensus is pressured by the need to vote for protocols necessary to join the African Union. Thus, two key royal advisors met with Benkiran to request some urgency on the formation of the government, but in vain, because administration-backed parties want a puppet prime minister to lead a contradictory and weak cabinet that will cripple his reforms from the start. The parliament was then needed to vote, which obliged members to elect a speaker before the government had been formed.

Some parties, especially the National Rally of Independents (RNI), supported by heavy online media and TV coverage, seized the opportunity to try to force Benkiran into accepting the role of puppet. If he didn’t, he was warned, the speaker would come from the opposition, which usually only happens in times of crisis.

After 7 October, an alliance with the Socialist Union for Public Forces (USFP) was believed to bring added value to the government. This expectation depended on USFP’s history and patrimony as a party that came through the atrocities of the “Years of Lead” during the reign of King Hassan II. However, USFP secretary general Driss Lachgar favoured allying with the 8 October soft coup attempt. In reward, he was promised the election of Lahbib El-Malki, a key USFP figure, as the first parliamentary speaker of the new session. PAM and RNI fulfilled their promise, despite USFP’s ranking seventh in the election. This is a sign of regression that devalues the pivotal role of the public vote in Morocco’s post-2011 nascent democracy.

Those parties which respected the public will as demonstrated in the October election adopted different ways to abstain from voting for El-Malki. First, the Independence Party (IP) withdrew from the meeting altogether. The IP secretary general’s inflammatory remarks against Mauritania had aroused official anger. To avoid further tensions, the party refrained from nominating a candidate to stand against El-Malki. Meanwhile, to express their party’s independent decision-making and refuse participation in hijacking the public’s electoral will, the IP parliamentary team left the meeting room.

PJD members, on the other hand, put blank papers into the ballot box. The party refrained from nominating Saadeddine El-Othmani, PJD’s national council president, as the speaker of parliament in order to avoid adding fuel to the fire in the dispute between political parties. Nominating a candidate would indicate totalitarianism on the part of the PJD, or a plan to hoard key decision-making posts. The party has been avoiding this image ever since its inception. Blank ballot papers implied an objection to El-Malki’s nomination against the will of the prime minister-designate. It was also an indication of the PJD’s readiness to struggle out of respect for the vote of public confidence that it got on 7 October, without threatening the public good.

Leaving the meeting would, on the other hand, have delegitimised the whole PJD discourse. The party’s reform approach depends on the slow but sure participation in social and political change. Withdrawing from a meeting dictated by a strategic cause would portray the PJD as a threat to other institutions. It would also be an encouragement for political and social movements to boycott elections and treat them as political make-believe.

The Progress and Socialism Party (PPS) also submitted blank ballot papers. The move indicated the party’s loyalty to its coalition with the PJD. The party’s parliamentary team is small, which creates an urgent need for bigger and stronger allies. However, the PPS avoids alliances with parties favoured by the administration because it will then function as a mere annex to the establishment elite with no ability to push for representation in the forthcoming cabinet.

Consequently, El-Malki found himself a lone candidate representing the opposition. This deals a blow not only to the official discourse of plurality and diversity but also to the public aspiration for a more democratic political sphere. As public voting legitimacy undergoes a silent takeover, belief in the role of elections may shrink. However, this is a psychological outcome that the administration’s preferred parties hope for. Freer parties and media, on the contrary, need to show and explain the importance of patience in the long struggle for democratisation.

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