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Why did Morocco's Islamic party re-elect its former leader?

Morocco's Secretary General of the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) and former prime minister, Abdelilah Benkirane on March 18, 2017 [FADEL SENNA/AFP via Getty Images]
Morocco's Secretary General of the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) and former prime minister, Abdelilah Benkirane on March 18, 2017 [FADEL SENNA/AFP via Getty Images]

After ten years in power, the Justice and Development Party (PJD) in Morocco had a disastrous defeat in the parliamentary election held on 8 September. Led by Saadeddine El-Othmani, the party saw its 125 seats slashed to just 13 out of a total of 395. This dramatic defeat of the Islamists in parliament prompted the mass resignation of the PJD leadership, and its National Council decided to hold an Exceptional National Congress just 10 days later to appoint a management committee. That committee made the preparations for the party's Ordinary National Congress on 31 October, which re-elected former Secretary-General Abdelilah Benkirane.

Senior PJD leaders had called for members not to vote for Benkirane as they did not believe that he would be able to unite the party and revive it as a major political force in Morocco. They claimed that he is a "confrontational figure" and neither the Moroccan voters nor politicians will support him. They cited the monarch's apparent discontent with him.

However, Benkirane won 81 per cent of the members' votes at the congress. Indeed, during the discussion, there were more than 70 interventions, most of which called for him to be reinstated. Where did this overwhelming vote of confidence come from?

Before he was ousted by King Mohammad VI in 2017, Benkirane led the PJD to two unprecedented victories in 2011 and 2016. Can he help the party to reclaim its popularity and prominence?

READ: The Moroccan Justice and Development Party refuses to hold partial elections

Benkirane was dismissed by the king after he demonstrated to Moroccans that everyone in the country is equal, including the monarch. He sent messages through his charismatic addresses that a monarchy is basically a dictatorship, and that despite allowing elections to take place, the king is still a dictator in all but name. He went so far as to refuse to kneel before the head of state, as is the custom in Morocco, where the royal family sees themselves as being above the people. In an interview with Al Jazeera in 2012, Benkirane explained that "The king is our king and we hold him in high regard [but] Moroccans kneel for no one but God!"

In a 2016 interview, he insisted that he was "not required to please the king, only God who created me and my mother." This comment angered the royal family because he suggested that the members of the royal family are not special people, but are the same as any others.

He changed major concepts that had been believed to be unquestionable facts in the Kingdom. He also blamed the king for the setbacks of his government because the former did not cede power enough for a government to act independently and carry out the longed-for reforms. After he was dismissed, Benkirane reminded a PJD rally that, "The king is not God. He is a man, and as a man he is sometimes right and sometimes wrong."

That, believe many PJD members, is the essence of the party. It's the original ideology based on justice and equality.

Moreover, Benkirane has been a vociferous critic of government policies relating to the normalisation of ties with Israel, the Arabisation of education, and the legalisation of cannabis. Following the approval of the bill to make the drug legal, Benkirane used his Facebook page to announce his resignation from the PJD, insisting that he had no links to the Secretary-General — Prime Minister Othmani — and other PJD ministers.

A growing number of countries in the MENA region are normalising ties with Israel - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

A growing number of countries in the MENA region are normalising ties with Israel – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Such firm positions on national and party principles convinced the PJD that Benkirane will not agree to any compromise of their interests in the future and is able to block political deviation. "The party must seek a new approach, which is a positive and beneficial element for our state and our society before being beneficial for our party," he told the Ordinary National Congress after his re-election as Secretary-General of the party.

In contrast to the attacks on him by candidates for the role, he demonstrated a lot of respect for them. His new office staff are both supporters and opponents. "As long as you have chosen me, I will be the Secretary-General for all of you," he told PJD members.

READ: Morocco's PJD outlines party's political strategy

The government coalition was formed by parties allied to the king which won the majority of the seats in parliament. Opposition is virtually non-existent, and this will surely lead the country to chaos and instability. PJD members as well as ordinary Moroccans and even the government and King Mohammad are betting on the charismatic politician to put a firm hand on the popular opposition on the street and institutionalise it. Indeed, the king congratulated Benkirane on his re-election.

Analysts and observers are uncertain about whether Benkirane will be able to rehabilitate the PJD, end the internal divisions and revive the credibility of its Islamic ideology, or not. They agree that this will not be an easy task, and some believe that he will fail. We have to wait and see if he can make the party as strong and effective as it once was.

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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