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Morocco’s ex-PM resists marginalisation and promises a hard-fought election in 2021

Abdelilah Benkirane, former Prime Minister of Morocco

While the Moroccan government displays outward harmony, an exchange of media statements has stirred up the seemingly calm atmosphere among its members. Unlike the previous government run by the Justice and Development Party (PJD), little media criticism tracks the current administration’s pitfalls, despite problematic policies. However, added to non-stop mobilisation on the streets, a speech by Abdelilah Benkirane, the PJD’s ex-prime minister, puts the government on the verge of dissolution, promising a hard fought election in 2021, or possibly earlier.

When in office, Benkirane dashed many pre-established limits. It was unprecedented, for example, for him to distinguish between the political responsibilities of the government and the monarchy, foregrounding the interventions of each. He also proved state calculations wrong when he won largely countryside seats, demystifying the idea that Moroccan elections by their very nature prevent parties from gaining the majority of parliamentary seats. He tried to integrate into politics a whole community of Salafists, and held large rallies in two cities on the same night, something only the King could normally do. He also overcame the tradition that no prime minister holds the post twice. Without his ouster, his big electoral success qualified him for another term leading the government.

These unprecedented steps prompted the state to marginalise Benkirane and start preparing for the next elections early, supposedly to avoid a repetition of circumstances. Such preparation has included reshaping the Istiqlal (Independence) Party leadership, replacing the Authenticity and Modernity Party with the National Rally of Independents as the state’s party, promoting Aziz Akhannouch on the media and intimidating the PJD.

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To prove that he is difficult to marginalise, Benkirane addressed the inauguration ceremony of the national congress of the PJD youth organisation, sending messages in different directions. Direct messages included the PJD’s persistence despite the political earthquake it has undergone, the party’s loyalty to the monarchy without cowering to the dictates of despotism, and that the PJD’s future expectations outnumber past mistakes.

More important were his indirect messages. The first was that the King is not able to suspend the PJD. Indeed, dissolving the PJD seems far-fetched today. The palace always tries to build an image of a constitution-abiding actor, avoiding direct confrontation with opposition parties by supporting loyal groups. As such, the palace has other tactics to weaken the PJD other than total suppression.

Secondly, today’s circumstances do not justify the decision. In 2003, after the 16 May terrorist attacks in Casablanca, it was more logical to do so, albeit undemocratic. Moreover, the PJD has become sufficiently deep-rooted in Moroccan society to make it too difficult to uproot. These factors, hinted Benkirane, make fears about complete suppression by the state unjustifiable and, as a result, PJD leaders and members should be bolder in their decisions and statements.

Another unsaid point is that election results cannot be decided outside the ballot boxes. Though the state may support a particular party — or, indeed, parties — it is unable to guarantee winning the elections. Based on the 2016 experience, electoral effort bears fruit. Thus, PJD leaders should not be afraid of pre-election propaganda.

Current Prime Minister Saadeddine Othmani was addressed indirectly by Benkirane. Leading a party that yearns to protect the election results and forges the realisation of election promises requires clearer effort. In dealing with others, Othmani should treat political adversaries with greater vigour, given their weaknesses, added to the legitimacy that the PJD gained from defeating them in 2015 and 2016.

Morocco’s Prime Minister, Saadeddine Othmani speaks during a session at the Moroccan Assembly in Rabat, Morocco on 19 April 2017 [Jalal Morchidi/Anadolu Agency]

Nevertheless, Benkirane neglected the PJD’s internal disputes that facilitate its weakening. His speech is a case in point. During his mandate, he favoured silencing PJD voices that could jam his relationship with coalition parties or the palace. As a result, he frequently criticised Abdelaziz Aftati, the ex-MP of Oujda, in the north-east of Morocco, renowned for courageous statements and analyses. Benkirane similarly disdained the party’s youngsters for criticising the state harshly on social media. He aimed to guarantee maximum consensus for his dealings with political partners, which he does not allow today for Othmani.

On the contrary, in 2021, shaking off the state tyranny can depend on continuous public anger. Street mobility has never stopped since 2011, demanding a more balanced sharing of power. Activists accuse the state, not political parties, of the uneven distribution of wealth, decadent infrastructure, inequality of opportunity and negligence of peripheral regions. They even refuse to listen to ministers or believe in their promises, often accusing them of being state puppets.

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Thus, developments promise a fiery atmosphere during the elections. Two obstacles still need to be removed, though. Firstly, the PJD needs to choose a new leader before the elections since no prime minister is allowed to hold office twice. This coincides with the need for Benkirane’s communicative power to win elections again, which justifies choosing him to be secretary general of the PJD before 2021.

Secondly, and more importantly, voter turnout has plummeted. In the 2017 partial elections, the turnout rarely exceeded 8 pre cent, compared to 34 per cent in 2016. I tis possible that even PJD members did not vote, to denounce the intimidation of the blockage and the formation of the current government, which some youngsters describe as “the government of humiliation”.

Without serious steps to convince voters of the relevance of elections, the whole political process will lose legitimacy; this will be aggravated if corruption pervades the process.

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