The Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD) was undoubtedly the biggest winner in Morocco’s recent local elections. The party with the lantern logo lit up the urban polls in its first major electoral test since winning a slight plurality of votes in the legislative elections of 2011.
In a region where other Islamists have failed to capture state and society, either by choice or by coercion, Moroccan Islamists of the PJD have achieved yet another electoral breakthrough, while operating within a system limited by a shadow government of royal advisers and vast royal discretionary powers. Unlike other Islamists in the Middle East and North Africa, and perhaps learning from the experiences of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia, the PJD does not seek a change in the configuration of the regime; instead, its members are focused on exerting a new practical and inclusive style of governance predicated on gradual “passive” revolutionary societal and state change.
The September 4 local elections featured a high voter turnout, with 53 percent of the 14.5 million registered voters casting their ballots for some 31,503 seats in urban and rural municipalities across Morocco . More than 30 political parties fielded candidates, but the main contest was among the Islamist PJD, which has lead the coalition government since 2011, the pro-palace Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), and the historic independence party of al-Istiqlal. The PAM fielded more candidates than any other party, especially in rural areas that account for more than 76 percent of all electoral districts in Morocco. However, the pro-palace party, created by a close adviser to king Mohammed VI, managed to only win 21 percent municipal seats in the kingdom, ahead of al-Istiqlal’s 16 percent of seats and the PJD’s 15 percent.
Overall, the PAM won 5 of the 12 regional councils (a regional council is comprised of city councils) compared with the two councils won by the PJD. However, inside these regional councils, the PJD successfully challenged incumbents in most of the big cities in Morocco: Casablanca, Marrakech, the capital city of Rabat, Kenitra, Meknes, Safi, the northern cities of Tangiers and Tetouan, the southern port city of Agadir, and notably Mohammedia, where a PJD candidate defeated PAM secretary general Mustapha al-Bakouri and Fes, where the PJD also unseated mercurial mayor and head of al-Istiqlal Hamid Chabat.
In total, the PJD won 25 percent of the urban municipal seats, to PAM’s 19 percent, and al-Istiqlal’s 17 percent. Most of the major gains for the PAM and al-Istiqlal were in rural districts, highlighting the sharp urban-rural divide in Morocco. The former is generally more educated and arguably less corruptible, while the latter is predominantly illiterate and possibly more susceptible to venal electoral tactics.
The magnitude of the PJD’s electoral breakthrough is best illustrated in contrast to its performance in the 2009 elections, during which it won a meager 5.5 percent of seats. In six years, the party of the lantern has tripled its electoral tally of communal and municipal seats. The PJD victory is particularly symbolic in Fes, a city long synonymous with the ruling political elite in Morocco. Such electoral victories mark a clear departure from key pillars of the ancien regime with its nepotistic and corrupt practices.
The PJD’s electoral gain was due largely to its formidable campaign machine and organization in urban centers. The party ran a clean and orderly grassroots campaign, with a vast mass mobilization network of supporters. In contrast, reports of fraudulent electoral practices plagued PAM and al-Istiqlal, reportedly exchanged money and gifts for vote pledges. The campaigns were especially fierce on social media where each party attempted to cast a positive image of its electoral promises.
As an incumbent of sorts, the PJD campaigned on a record of socio-economic stability, justice, and transparency under the campaign slogan “Our vote is our chance to continue with the reforms.” The party was extremely effective at using elaborate memes, YouTube videos, Facebook posts and tweets of nifty infographics to illustrate its alleged successes, notably decreasing inflation, reducing the state budget deficit, and working to combat poverty and unemployment. In the days leading up to the elections, the PJD generated significant buzz. Wherever its candidates campaigned, the party commanded huge crowds: PJD leader and president of the coalition government Abdelilah Benkirane delivered his stump speeches to tens of thousands of enraptured supporters.
The PJD has decisively changed the political calculus in Morocco, presenting a governance alternative unparalleled in its style and substance in post-independence Morocco. PJD’s long-term strategy is indeed a Gramscian passive revolution, operating within the political system and rules of the political game set by the monarchy in order to mitigate the authoritarian features of the state, while working on the major socio-economic issues plaguing the country. Many Moroccans now speak of a discourse of honesty and transparency and are increasingly less cynical about the political scene.
In a July 2015 interview I conducted with Abdelilah Benkirane, the rather jovial statesman showed great confidence in his party’s track record and their chances in local elections. Benkirane framed his leadership and that of the party within the contours of a pragmatic strategy that accepts its lower status within the political system. According to Benkirane, the alternative options of “rejection and isolation,” perhaps in a reference to the banned Islamist Justice and Charity party (al-‘Adl wal Ihsane), failed to yield meaningful results. Instead, Benkirane is assertive that the PJD made the right choice as early as 1992 when the party decided to join the political scene.
The Islamist leader is content working within the confines of the constitutional rules of the Moroccan political system, featuring a two-level executive branch, “one at the level of his majesty, and the other at my level as the head of the government. I am obligated to take his view on everything, but the king isn’t obliged to take my opinion since he is the head of the state, commander of the faithful, in charge of the military, and the justice system.”
The PJD’s approach is positively pragmatic and is primarily geared to maintain state stability, while targeting socio-economic problems. For instance, Benkirane claims that, since leading the coalition government in 2011, his party has helped marginalized segments of society including widows, university students, retirees and people with disabilities.
The PJD functions within a circumscribed public and constitutional sphere. However, its long-term goals highlight what Asef Bayat terms “refolutions,” incremental societal change through reforms within the institutions of the current regime, rather than the insurrectionist attacks on state and society favored by Islamists elsewhere. The PJD’s strategy involves not just winning some measure of state power, but also influencing society through institutional, intellectual and moral means. The PJD has taken part in elections within an authoritarian context in order to position the party within the political system, contest the rules of the game, control some parts of the government and adopt meaningful socio-economic reforms. In this regard, the PJD’s strategy is a product of playing “games in multiple arenas,” as it is simultaneously working within the rules and seeking to change them.
Although Morocco remains a carefully engineered political edifice, there has been a palpable change in the political scene and discourse. The PJD is restoring some popular confidence in the ability of political parties to provide real solutions to societal problems, especially among the marginalized and alienated segments of the population in Morocco. The regime is firmly entrenched and shows no signs of deep democratic reforms, but Moroccans, at least those who voted in the 2011 legislative elections and the recent local elections, seem to favor good governance, transparency and social justice discourse over deep democratic institutional reforms. For now, the PJD has to capitalize on its recent gains ahead of the legislative elections in 2016, which will undoubtedly prove to be a bigger test than the local polls.