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Why has Morocco's Justice and Development Party lost so badly?

General secretary of Justice and Development Party Saad-Eddine El Othmani (R) visits shop owners at Al Manal Mall ahead of the general elections to be held in September 8, in Rabat, Morocco on 29 August 2021. [Jalal Morchidi - Anadolu Agency]
General secretary of Justice and Development Party Saad-Eddine El Othmani (R) visits shop owners at Al Manal Mall ahead of the general elections to be held in September 8, in Rabat, Morocco on 29 August 2021. [Jalal Morchidi - Anadolu Agency]

The provisional results of the parliamentary election in Morocco show a crushing defeat for the Justice and Development Party (PJD), which collapsed from 125 seats to just 12. This is the party's worst result since the 1997 election, when it won eight seats. Its defeat in this week's election is shocking, given that it had proved its pragmatism, putting the national interests over its own and opting not to oppose major decisions taken by the monarch so as not to plunge the Kingdom into chaos.

The National Rally of Independents (NRI) has replaced the PJD as the party with the most seats in parliament, winning 97 of the 395 seats available. The NRI was founded by late Prime Minister Ahmed Osman in 1978, who was a brother-in-law of the then King Hassan II. The party included liberal politicians favoured by the Royal Palace.

Regardless of their backgrounds, political parties are generally chosen by voters according to their manifesto commitments and policies for running the country. However, in the Arab world, religion also plays a role. Most Arabs are Muslims, which is why the Westernised, US-backed authoritarian regimes in the region do not allow free elections that might bring Islamist parties to power.

When the Algerians protested against food shortages and a failing economy in 1988, the ruling party was forced to give up its monopoly on power and open the way for a multiparty system under a new Constitution. It was the first country in the Arab world to allow Islamists to stand as candidates in parliamentary and municipal elections.

Morocco: PJD leaders resign after election defeat

In the first free election since the country gained its independence from France in 1962, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) defeated the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN). Rather than allow the FIS to form the government, the FLN refused to concede and, backed by the army, started a bloody civil war against the Islamists and the people of Algeria. In a classic example of how the Western media took issue against Islamists, the New York Times referred to the FIS as a "fundamentalist" group, despite the fact that it was moderate in its policies. It highlighted several issues to turn the public against the party, including the status of women, the hijab, secularism and civic freedoms.

"The electoral success for the fundamentalists is likely to encourage Muslim movements in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan, Turkey and the Sudan, where powerful Muslim undercurrents play a significant role in politics," warned the NYT. Thus, the democratic choice of the people was ignored by the Algerian military, paving the way for a Western-backed dictatorship.

A similar reaction was seen when Hamas won the "free and fair" democratic elections in occupied Palestine in 2006. An Israeli-led siege has been imposed on Hamas in Gaza ever since, aided and abetted by the West and its lackeys in the region. The Palestinian Authority run by Mahmoud Abbas — whose own mandate expired in 2009 — continues to be backed by Israel and the West to keep the Islamists of Hamas from power.

In the Arab Spring from 2011 onwards, popular uprisings against tyranny were seen in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, and led to ongoing civil wars in Syria and Yemen. This worried the regimes in the Gulf, which not only cracked down on Islamist groups in their own countries, but also financed counter-revolutions across the region. In Morocco, meanwhile, King Mohammed VI announced constitutional reforms which apparently reduced his own absolute power and handed some of it to the elected prime minister.

Poling clerks start to count votes after the parliamentary and municipal elections, at a polling station in Rabat, Morocco on September 08, 2021. [Jalal Morchidi - Anadolu Agency]

Poling clerks start to count votes after the parliamentary and municipal elections, at a polling station in Rabat, Morocco on September 08, 2021. [Jalal Morchidi – Anadolu Agency]

Hence, in 2012, the people of Morocco duly voted and the PJD won the most seats, and formed the government. The Islamist party took the bait dangled by the king and swallowed it whole.

Despite the PJD's victory, wrote Abdeslam Maghraoui for the Wilson Centre in 2015, "The monarchy's formal powers and informal networks… remain as strong and extensive as ever." Indeed, "The monarchy played a behind-the-scenes role in identifying — and vetoing — cabinet members for sensitive posts."

He reiterated that King Mohammed had consolidated his power within the new government before it was formed in order to be sure that the new government would not have any real power. "[T]he king hired key figures from the previous cabinet as counsellors, who will have significant executive power and influence," said Maghraoui.

On the ground, the PJD-led coalition government headed by Abdelilah Benkirane achieved very little in the fields it had pledged to reform — especially education, health and welfare — between 2012 and 2016 when it won a parliamentarian majority for the second time. Post-election in 2016, the king did his best to remove the veteran Benkirane from the political arena.

"Benkirane's growing popularity inside and outside the party and the PJD's consecutive successes in elections turned the party and its leader into a target," commented Intissar Fakir in an article published by the Carnegie Centre in 2017. "Worried, the palace and traditional power brokers in Morocco worked to hamper Benkirane's efforts to form a second government and ultimately ensure he stayed out of party leadership."

READ: Morocco PJD condemns 'violations that affect integrity of the elections'

The palace's efforts to undermine Benkirane's attempt to form a coalition government continued until 15 March 2017, when "the king asked Benkirane to step down and allow another PJD leader to establish a new government."

This was led by the new PJD Secretary General Saadeddine Othmani, but the palace continued to undermine the Islamists. It exploited the unrest in Al-Hoceima, and the northern Rif region erupted in October 2017 following the death of a local fish vendor, who was crushed in a garbage compressor while trying to retrieve fish confiscated by the local authorities.

The government detained protesters, who were pardoned by the king. He then dismissed three ministers and other officials over a lack of progress in the Rif's regional development plan. The monarch promised a "political earthquake" to fix the country's many governance issues.

"The move reinforced the monarchy's image as an arbiter of politics and undermined the [PJD] government," explained Maghraoui. "It also called into question the previous government's record and its narrative of success — and reaffirmed the king's predominance."

The major issue which has now turned the Moroccan electorate against the PJD is the normalisation of ties with Israel last year. Although Morocco has had a strong relationship with Israeli for decades, the king exploited this in his war on the PJD.

I looked at how the PJD was trapped by the normalisation deal in a previous MEMO article. The move appeared to be a knockout blow for the party.

In Morocco, signing deals with other states and following up external relations is the job of the Royal Palace; the prime minister has no role in such matters. The PJD entered parliament on the basis that it would not challenge the king in any way, so as to stabilise and develop the country.

Poling clerks start to count votes after the parliamentary and municipal elections, at a polling station in Rabat, Morocco on September 08, 2021. [Jalal Morchidi - Anadolu Agency]

Poling clerks start to count votes after the parliamentary and municipal elections, at a polling station in Rabat, Morocco on September 08, 2021. [Jalal Morchidi – Anadolu Agency]

"Rejecting normalisation and refusing to sign the deal would have enraged the king and plunged the country into chaos," the Secretary General of the National Labour Union of Morocco, Abdelilah El-Halouti, told me. "The resignation of the prime minister would have had serious political, social and economic consequences." The party, he added, chose the least harmful option.

The people of Morocco were not aware of this. They blamed the PJD for the normalisation sin. Even PJD officials and members have sought to distance themselves from the shame of normalisation.

Amin Al-Said, professor of constitutional law and political sciences at Sidi Mohammad Abdullah University, told Al Jazeera that Moroccans "punished" the PJD in the parliamentary election for its involvement in normalisation with Israel.

King Mohammed may have succeeded in replacing the Islamist PJD with palace favourite the NRI, but it will never develop Morocco as the people wish. Like all ruling Arab regimes, the monarchy in Morocco is unwilling to allow it to do so. Such regimes have been tasked by the colonial powers to keep their people distracted by the need to make a basic living, so that they are not inclined to rise up in protest.

"Greater economic prosperity and development will depend on the strength of [Morocco's] institutions — which are overruled, heavily controlled and often made obsolete by the king," Intissar Fakir pointed out. "As long as the monarchy resists allowing these institutions to become strong and independent, the country's long-term social and economic development will be limited and the potential for instability will be considerable."

The colonial powers are always on standby, just in case, and the regimes know it. So great is their dependence on the West that former US President Donald Trump felt able to tell King Salman of Saudi Arabia that his throne would not survive more than five minutes without American protection. It is arguably this level of Western interference which has defeated the Justice and Development Party as much as anything else.

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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