Maghreb studiesPolitical studies

Morocco’s Elections Won’t Deliver Political Change

Alana Moceri - World Politics Review

Wednesday’s legislative elections in Morocco delivered a crushing defeat to the ruling Justice and Development Party , or PJD, a moderate Islamist party that had been the largest in Parliament since 2011. Thanks in part to mandatory quotas for female representation, the new crop of lawmakers is on track to be more diverse, with a greater number of women, as well as young people. But it will also be more deeply fragmented, and with royalist parties emerging as the victors of the vote, the incoming Parliament is unlikely to pose any meaningful challenge to King Mohammed VI, who controls nearly all levers of political power.

With 96 percent of the vote counted, the PJD had only won 12 of the 395 seats in the lower house of Parliament, a far cry from its previous total of 125. The biggest winner was the PJD’s previous governing partner, the National Party of Independents, or RNI, which held just 37 seats in the last legislature but won a plurality of 97 this time around, according to provisional results. 

Founded in 1978, the RNI is primarily made up of businesspeople, technocrats and civil servants. Its leader is Agriculture Minister Aziz Akhannouch, a billionaire tycoon who is the second-richest man in the country after the king. He has close ties with the royal court and is close friends with the king himself. His campaign platform focused on bread-and-butter issues rather than democratic reforms.

“The citizens’ demands revolve around social welfare, the doubling of the health sector’s budget as well as the achievement of quality education,” Akhannouch said in a recent interview with a Moroccan media  outlet. His party wooed voters with the slogan “You Deserve Better,” which it wrote in the Moroccan dialect used by 85 percent of the country, rather than traditional Arabic. The attempt to expand its reach to voters of more diverse socio-economic and educational backgrounds seems to have paid off. 

Another royalist grouping, the Authenticity and Modernity Party or PAM, which previously led the opposition with 102 seats, came in second this week with 82 seats so far. The conservative Istiqlal party, meanwhile, has taken 78 seats.

The next step is for the king to choose the prime minister from the party that won the most votes. All bets are on Akhannouch, but he will still have to cobble together a governing coalition and a Cabinet that must also be approved by the king. The palace also has control over Morocco’s economic policy agenda, despite Akhannouch’s campaign promises.

Voter turnout showed an improvement over the last election in 2016 , rising from 43 percent to just over 50 percent. While this might still seem low by international standards, the upward shift is nonetheless respectable considering COVID-19 restrictions were in place that prohibited the use of pamphlets and gatherings of more than 25 people. Ultimately, political parties adapted to the pandemic by taking their campaigns online, and turnout may have also gotten a boost from the fact that regional and local elections were held concurrently.

Morocco’s incoming Parliament is on track to be more diverse, with greater numbers of women and young people represented, but also more deeply fragmented.

At the same time, this marginally higher turnout masks a high level of apathy among much of the Moroccan electorate, given the slow pace of political change. Shortly after a mass protest movement rocked the country in early 2011, during the Arab Spring uprisings, the king agreed to promulgate a new constitution that expanded the role of Parliament, even as real power remained with the monarchy. Successive PJD-led governments have tried to open more political space, but have remained unable to effect any real change in Morocco. 

The incoming Parliament will likely prove to be even more impotent due to electoral reforms that were put in place last March, which changed the way in which parliamentary seats are distributed after elections. Morocco is now the world’s only country that makes this allocation based on the number of votes won proportional to registered voters, rather than to actual votes cast. 

On one hand, this allowed for more of the country’s 31 political parties to enter Parliament. But as Rania Elghazouli, a Rabat-based researcher, wrote  in the lead-up to this week’s polls, it also means that “no political party will be mathematically able to exceed 100 seats in parliament, making it very difficult to have a clear winner.” This ensures a greater degree of jostling among smaller parties and coalitions, while the king wields even more control and power. 

This year’s elections had a slightly greater degree of gender diversity than any previous vote. In total, 2,329 women ran for Parliament, representing more than 34 percent of the total candidacies. This is largely due to a system of mandatory quotas for female representation in government that has steadily expanded since it was first introduced in 2002. In 2011, the national quota for women in Parliament was doubled from 30 to 60, ensuring that women would make up at least 15 percent of the lower house. Thirty seats were also reserved for people under 40 years old, although in practice this mostly benefitted men. In the end, 17 percent of elected lawmakers in 2011 were women . In 2016, the quotas remained the same and the women’s share of Parliament inched up to a total 20.5 percent .

Still, many women leaders point out that there are still high levels of gender inequality across society. Morocco’s former minister of solidarity, women and family and social development, Nouzha Skalli, recently told Spain’s EFE news agency , “We have normal ambitions that reflect the same commitments expressed in the Constitution, i.e. the duty of the state to impose parity. We are not content to fall short of parity.” She was referring to article 19 of Morocco’s 2011 constitution, which stipulates that “men and women enjoy equal civil, political, economic, social, cultural and environmental rights and freedoms (…) and the State acts to achieve parity between men and women.”

While some countries, like Spain, have quotas that require the parties to present a certain level of parity in the lists they present, Morocco has a unique system where voters choose candidates from two lists: An all-female list that fills the required quota, and a second one that includes both men and women. Many Moroccan women see this as an obstacle to gender parity, because the number of women on the mixed-gender lists generally doesn’t exceed 2 percent because of deeply entrenched sexism. 

The quota for women was raised this year to 90, and the national list replaced by regional ones. Yet, a week out from the election, women were already demanding an increased quota. According to the preliminary results, women will hold at least 22.7 percent of the seats in the new parliament, a marginal increase from the current 21 percent, considering that a record number of women candidates ran. But it will be impossible to tell how the new, regionally based quota system has worked until all the numbers are confirmed.

In the end, the real decision-making power in Morocco remains in the hands of the king. But it would be a mistake to overlook the other key takeaway from these elections: Moroccan women are slowly but surely raising their voices and demanding more representation. For now, though, the only progress they are making is through quotas, without which there would be no progress at all.

Alana Moceri is an international relations analyst, writer and professor at the IE School of Global and Public Affairs. Follow her on Twitter @alanamoceri .

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