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The Moroccan experience: A constitutional escape or custom making a party?

Image of Morocco’s newly-appointed Prime Minister, Saad Eddine El-Othmani [PJD Press Office/Anadolu]
Morocco’s Prime Minister, Saadeddine Othmani [PJD Press Office/Anadolu]

The statement issued by the Royal Court on 15 March excusing the Party for Justice and Development (PJD) leader Abdelilah Benkirane from forming a government put an end to the longest negotiations progress to form a government in the history of the country.

Over five months have passed since Benkirane was tasked with forming the government after his party took the lead in the parliamentary elections and he failed to form a government coalition enabling him to continue the series of major reforms that began in 2012. These reforms formed the so-called "Moroccan exception".

This exception was present in Benkirane's exemption statement which contradicted all the interpretations made in the context of searching for an escape from this stifling crisis. The country's king did not make an effort to lend a helping hand to a man who tried to overcome the political impasse, but instead, as Benkirane's supporters expected, he was implicitly blamed for the situation.

He also did not support the much talked about undemocratic interpretations of the 2011 constitution in the final days of the political crisis.

Between the statement made by the Royal Court to excuse Benkirane, which is restricted by the text of the new constitution, and the decision to appoint Saadeddine Othmani, which came in accordance with Article 19 of the old constitution; there are numerous interpretations of the royal intervention to resolve the political crisis.

Fulfilment of the Constitution

The Royal Court's statement affirmed that the King intervened within the limits of the presumed relationship between the Head of State and an appointed prime minister. This means that the King intervened in the capacity of the head of state who bears the responsibility of respecting the Constitution and protecting the country and citizens' best interests.

According to Article 42, the King exercised his constitutional authority when he decided to write off Benkirane and dismiss the politician who filled the world and occupied the people.

In terms of technicality, he respected the constitution's provisions by choosing to appoint Saadeddine Othmani (the second man in the party) as a replacement to this "nationalist who disturbs the authority". By doing so, technically remains within the bounds of Article 47, i.e. choosing a prime minister from the party leading in the elections.

It is worth noting that the constitution gives the king another option: dissolving the parliament and announcing the organisation of early elections, as well as unconstitutional choices, such as the interpretation of some articles in a manner aligning with the will of the monarchy, in light of the many gaps in the constitutional text revealed by the government crisis (such as the period granted to form the government).

Another option would be the establishment of a new constitutional practice, similar to what happened with the Socialist Union of Popular Forces, when the appointment of Driss Jettou as prime minister in 2002, a departure from the democratic methodology that was customary at the time.

The monarchy's appointment of another figure within the PJD refutes the theory that was promoted before the parliamentary elections, which said that the king no longer wants to rule alongside the Islamists even if the ballot boxes give them the lead.

The relationship between the two sides, according to the opinion of some analysts, has reached the stage of no return or "divorce". However, this decision confirms the opposite of what this opinion suggests. The palace has a problem with a certain trend or certain people given their positions and conflicts with people or parities close to the palace, and not with the Islamist organisation as a whole.

Violation of the legality in the appointment

In dealing with the government crisis, Benkirane wanted to "export" the crisis to the monarchy while keeping the keys in his hands. He justified this by the king being the head of state and a judge between the institutions, first, and second by the "ambiguous" relationship between the main parties in the crisis and the palace, or at least one of its wings, that is if it did not carry out his agenda in accordance with the palace's conditions.

However, the palace realised this and deliberately threw the ball back into the party's court, and not just to the secretary-general, when the royal statement mentioned as an alternative figure within the party's ranks, without providing any names.

However, the palace quickly amended the situation out of fear of entering an indirect confrontation with Benkirane's colleagues. This amendment was in the form of appointing the second-ranking figure in the part as prime minister and tasking him with searching for a government coalition that the secretary-general failed or perhaps was hindered from forming.

In doing so, the palace avoided any surprise that may arise from the National Council meeting, especially after the government General Secretariat announced its rejection of holding Benkirane responsible for any delay in the formation of the government, noting that the responsibility falls on the "successive conditions" during the various stages of negotiations.

The General Secretariat's statement put an end to the voices calling for the return of the party to the opposition ranks by those who believe the party is in line with their positions and leadership. By doing so, they would prove to the people that it is a party that has complete independence in internal decisions and is unwilling to receive any dictations from any anyone.

The exemption statement was a step by the palace that is considered a leap forward in the relationship between monarchy and the partisan actors. The monarchy should have waited a few days to see what the PJD National Committee (the party's parliament) will decide, since the monarchy had waited five months to no avail.

However, this did not occur. The monarchy appointed Saadeddine Othmani and by doing so, it forced the party's parliament to deal with reality, as the monarchy left very few options for the party.

Hence, the PJD leaders found themselves compelled to positively interact with the new figure chosen by the palace, without waiting for the positions and decisions issued by their parliament, and perhaps even names proposed by the party to lead the government as a replacement for Benkirane.

Beyond the exemption and appointment

Appointment and exemption are essential in the political landscape in Morocco given the nature of the current system, which is characterised by two features: hybridity and confusion. The key variable remains how to the monarchy exercises its constitutional powers.

In other words, will it take a democratic approach and set an example for the rest of the actors in the scene to stick to the democratic interpretation of the constitution, or will the issue of interests dictate its actions when dealing with the constitutional provisions?

This question is answered by the developments in dealing with the government crisis indirectly, by means of several messages we can conclude from what has been happening and currently happening in the Moroccan political arena.

First, dismissing Benkirane is a message from the state to the PJD to change its approach in dealing with the palace and a message to the new Prime Minister, Saadeddine Othmani, to be more flexible and responsive to the higher approaches, and avoid the "opposition policy" his predecessor exercised during his rule.

Secondly, the state is determined to continue the process of integrating the Islamists, like the other parities, in the political scene (based on the "carrot and stick" approach). It plans to do so by slowly melting them into the pot of the complex political system, relying mainly on the time factor.

This means the repetition of the method used with the Socialist Union of Popular Forces, which has a long historical record, which ended in record time (1997 – 2017).

Third, the state wants a version of the PJD that is different from the version wanted by some of the people. The state needs to promote the success of the Moroccan model in Africa, as well as internationally.

On the other hand, it is unable to sustain a political party that is promoting a new political culture that has not been accustomed to, based on political voting, the legitimacy of the ballot box, popular will, etc. this will have a political impact on the society after a while.

Fourth, the state does not want to clash with the PJD because it needs the party in light of the current situation. If it had intended to break up the party, it would have chosen the Transportation and Equipment Minister Abdulaziz Al-Rabah instead of the undisputed Saadeddine Othmani. This implies that the goal of this escape is to create a custom-made party.

Fifth, the state does not want to break the "Moroccan Spring" as much as it wants to shut it down quietly and gradually. The political impasse we witnessed is only a phase that may be followed by other phases, despite this seeming unlikely given the leadership of an amicable and consensual man such as Othmani, in the next five years if he is successful in forming a government.

Sixth, the state is keen in this struggle to keep itself within the framework of the constitution, which it used arbitrarily numerous times in the past.

While the matter is related to its desire to use the constitutional framework as a means to prevent the PJD from returning to the ranks of the opposition, because this would automatically raise the profile of the leader Abdelilah Benkirane in the political scene, and give him full opportunity to play a role he has already mastered.

All that is left to say is those who hurried to end the rule of the "nuisance" Benkirane, who clashed with various sides in the state until he became unwanted in the last few months of his first term, will work to facilitate the rule of Othmani in order to successfully form the government coalition.

However, they forget that the most important battle lies in bringing about the rest of the sometimes intense political reforms, which require confronting the people frankly and using simple and sometimes cynical language. This is a task that no one in the PJD has mastered except Benkirane who has always refused to create a custom-made party.

Translated from Al Jazeera, 20 March 2017

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

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