A forum devoted to current political, economic trends, and news of the Maghreb region.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Morocco’s king just named a new prime minister, in case you forgot who’s in charge

* This article appeared on the Washington Post's Monkey Cage: 

After an unprecedented five months of post-election gridlock without a government, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI dismissed prime minister designate Abdelilah Benkirane on Wednesday. Benkirane’s Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD) won a plurality of seats in the legislative elections in October 2016 and appeared well on its way towards a second consecutive term at the helm of the Moroccan government. But negotiations did not go as planned. The dismissal came just a few days after Benkirane refused to acquiesce to a major alliance party’s demands to widen coalition talks and was widely seen as an attempt by the monarchy and its deep state network of elite allies, or makhzen, to regain political power. While the decision may have been unexpected, the regime’s logic is familiar. As Benkirane and his successor know well, they must play by the monarch’s rules. As it has done in the past, the regime is seeking to reconfigure the Moroccan political scene. The PJD, especially under Benkirane, may have become too popular and adversarial for the regime liking. The party has also increasingly re-engaged Moroccans politically building a formidable base, in a country where deploticization is a state policy.

After the dismissal, a palace communiqué lauded Benkirane’s service to the country, his “effectiveness, competence and self-sacrifice,” adding that the king would task another member of the PJD to form the government. Benkirane accepted the royal decision, in an austere tone: “This is our king and he came to a decision under the framework of the constitution, which I've always expressed support for…I'm going to perform ablution, pray, and continue working on the ground.”

Benkirane, as Secretary General of the party, then called for a special national council meeting of the PJD on Saturday. But before the party could gather to decide on its next move, the king further limited its options by tasking Saadeddine Othmani, the former Secretary General of the PJD and current head of the party’s national council, with forming the new government.

Addressing the press at the special national council meeting on Saturday, Benkirane resolutely declared that his government work is over. By the end of the day, the PJD national council unanimously supported Othmani’s appointment. Both Benkirane and Othmani reaffirmed the party’s dedication to its Islamic reference, belief in gradual reforms and support for the monarchy.

The palace may expect Othmani to yield to some of the demands of the palace-aligned makhzen parties led by the National Rally of Independents (RNI). Benkirane feared the proposed RNI coalition would lead to greater regime internal control, especially with Driss Lachgar’s USFP as an obstructionist bloc within the PJD-led government. The choice of Othmani suggests the gridlock was more about Benkirane than the PJD. Othmani, who was briefly minister of foreign affairs in Benkirane’s first government, is seen as more of a consensus-building politician. And though it did not immediately cause discord within the cohesive PJD, the removal of the beleaguered prime minster may be just the first phase in the regime’s attempt to re-order the political landscape and slow the pace of post-Arab uprisings reforms. Disrupting the government’s formation could eventually paves the way for new legislative elections that bring a makhzenite political elite to power.

The PJD’s 2011 and 2016 electoral successes bolstered confidence in its formidable grass root mobilization and ability to win elections. Though the PJD could have mobilized behind the revolutionary February 20th Movement in 2011, it chose to pursue participation in elections. In doing so, the PJD followed a “third way,” opting to join the political system in partnership with the palace and articulating a “refolutionary” discourse – focusing on incremental reforms rather than outright revolution.

But the party’s meteoric rise was not always in line with makhzen and palace interests. During the 2016 campaign, the populist Benkirane promoted his party as that of the people in direct contrast to the palace-loyal parties. Walking a rhetorical tightrope, the PJD expressed loyalty to the king, while criticizing the political system for tahakoum, political manipulation. In the hours before the official results of the legislative elections of October 2016 were announced, Benkirane boldly suggested the results might be subject to state manipulation. After it was clear that his party had won the plurality of the seats, Benkirane hailed the results as a victory for democracy and a further proof of public approval of his government’s performance.

The royal discharge of Benkirane speaks to the regime’s deep control of the political system, which is intentionally fragmented into “divided structures of contestation” (SOCs). In divided SOCs, the monarchy allows only select political opponents to take part in the political system while excluding others. These limited spheres of contestation shape government-opposition relations and dictate the rules of the game for the opposition within the formal political system. The resulting recycling of political parties and coalitions is necessary to maintain the smokescreen of political participation.

In the past, the makhzen has toppled parties wholesale, but this time, the change is more strategic and calibrated. The palace is killing two birds with one stone, removing the source of nuisance without subverting the will of the voters, while forcing change in the PJD’s internal leadership structure.

The Moroccan monarchy has a long tradition of managing opposition parties through cooptation and confinement, allowing opposition parties some stake in power, while the monarchy and the palace shadow government are ultimately in power. In 1997, the USFP won token control of the government. But undermined by the shadow government in the palace, it ultimately lost popular support and bore the brunt of the blame for the country’s socio-economic woes.

If the PJD had opted to leave the government for the opposition, it could have jeopardized its electoral momentum and vision for gradual reforms. But the party’s decision to stay in the government is not without risks either, especially as it seeks to maintain its political standing and appease its rank and file.

As Othmani negotiates with other parties to form the government, it will be interesting to see what course the party charters for him and how much leeway he will have. Remaining in the government under regime’s rules of the game could see the PJD face the same fate as the USFP.  While Morocco has passed some nominal reforms in the six years since the Arab uprisings shook the region, this latest incident is a clear reminder of who really wields power in the monarchy.

Islamist PJD consolidates its Electoral Gains in Morocco’s Legislative Elections

*A Version of the following article appeared in the Washington Post's Monkey Cage Blog:

Last Friday, Moroccans voted in the second legislative elections since the post-Arab uprisings constitutional reforms of 2011. Some 30 parties ran in a hotly contested race for the 395 parliamentary seats, but the ruling Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD) again secured a plurality. While the elections were hailed as proof of progress, they largely reinforced regime authority. The absence of a majority winner, and the continuing ideological fragmentation of the political system furthers the institutional imbalance of power between the palace and the government,
However, the limitations on political actors in Morocco may have actually created more space for the Islamist party. Many Moroccans see the PJD as a transparent and incorruptible force in Moroccan politics, and the party has used that to its advantage.

The PJD ran a grass-roots campaign, with a vast mass mobilization network of supporters, winning 125 seats in the parliament and consolidating past electoral gains. In a region where Islamist parties’ political experiments have been short lived, the PJD is on its way towards a second term at the helm of the government in Morocco. The electoral success of the PJD is a further testament to its impressive campaign machine and organization in mostly urban centers, but also due to a low 43 percent voter turnout, slightly lower than the 45 percent voter participation in the legislative elections in 2011.

Leading up to the elections, PJD leader Abdelilah Benkirane launched ads touting his party as the “party of the people,” a subtle reference to his main rival, the Party of the Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), which is seen as a palace puppet. Benkirane has continued to walk a tight rope of appearing loyal to the regime, while leveling subliminal critique of unelected shadow palace government for what he calls “tahakoum” or authoritarian political control.

Even in the hours before the Ministry of the Interior announced official results Benkirane was engaged in his usual doublespeak towards the regime when he suggested the results might be subject to state manipulation. But when it was clear that his party had won the plurality of the seats, the mercurial leader hailed the results as a “victory for democracy” and public approval of his government’s performance on major socio-economic issues.
Islamist success among low voter turnout

The PJD’s continued electoral success rested on its ability to motivate a large portion of the 15.7 million registered voters to cast their ballots for the party. But the low voter turnout is an indictment of the system of engineered elections in Morocco. The voter participation is further amplified in the context of the 28 million eligible voters in Morocco, in effect setting the real voter turnout at 23 percent last Friday. This is a particularly telling sign of Moroccans’ lack of confidence in not just the political parties but also the electoral system as a whole.

However, this low voter turnout favored the PJD political machine, which was able to mobilize their base to get to the polls. During the electoral campaign, the PJD’s strategy didn’t solely focus on its base. It sought to broaden its electoral constituencies by including Salafi Islamist candidates, one of whom, H’mad al-Qabbaj, was rejected by the Ministry of the Interior in a clear signal that the state still controls the political space and discourse.

This was a risky, albeit calculated, strategy for the PJD as a moderate Islamist party that has accepted the regime’s rules of the political game. Testing the limits of regime acceptance proved to be a point of contention between the party and its opponents, who orchestrated anti-PJD protests in Casablanca to denounce the party’s Islamist origins.

But the PJD wasn’t the only success story on Friday. Its main rival, the pro-palace, PAM came in second with 102 seats, effectively doubling its parliamentary seats from 2011. While the PJD’s predicament is its doublespeak, the PAM’s quandary lies in its close association with the palace. Its founder and de facto leader Fouad Ali al-Himma is a close adviser to the king. Al-Himma’s life and formative political experiences have been informed by his palace education alongside Mohammed VI and by an equally crucial time in the Ministry of the Interior. Over his career, al-Himma has mastered the core principles of the makhzen (deep authoritarian state structure) in the kingdom, namely the division of the political scene, electoral engineering and the drowning political dissent with palace-friendly parties in the name of “rationalization of the party system.”.

The PAM’s regime ties are well-known and account for its lack of credibility among many voters in Morocco. But the palace doesn’t allow open criticism of its close association with al-Himma. When the current Minister of Housing and Urban Policy, and Secretary General of the leftist Party for Progress and Socialism (PPS), Nabil Ben Abdallah, alluded to al-Himma’s relationship with the PAM, the royal cabinet issued an unprecedented communique chiding the minister for his comments. In a carefully planned electoral system, the regime sets the boundaries of acceptable political discourse.

Especially in the post-Arab uprisings era, the palace is less tolerant of any statements linking it to the elections. Even when the statement comes from a makhzenite politician like Benabdallah – who was instrumental in state repression of the press as a minister of communication from 2002 to 2007 – the regime is reluctant to lose control of the boundaries of tolerable political speech. Interestingly, Benabdallah’s PPS, and other leftist parties, suffered the steepest decline in electoral gains last Friday.

The election results consolidate the rise of a bipolar, PJD/PAM, political party system in Morocco, while historical parties decline. Furthermore, election outcomes once again reinforce the lack of ideological consistency in the party system in Morocco. Today, no main political party has a coherent ideology: even the PJD is, at this point, only loosely Islamist.

This ideological maelstrom will inevitably bring about a fragmented, ideologically-inchoate coalition government led by an electorally confident, but institutionally weakened PJD. Lacking a majority of the seats in the parliament, the PJD’s Benkirane will once again have to extend his hand across the aisle to other parties, notably, the historical nationalist-conservative al-Istiqlal party, which came in third in the elections with 46 seats as well as leftist parties. A pragmatic party, the PJD understands the reality of power politics in the Moroccan edifice and, at times, has demonstrated its willingness to sacrifice its Islamist philosophy for political power.

The PJD electoral success illustrates the rise of a new breed of Islamism, which is almost pragmatically secular and less ideologically tied to the core ethos of Islamism. For the PJD, like Ennahda in Tunisia, Islam is not din wa dawla (religion and state) anymore. This Islamism is a strategy of political action that seeks to separate its political from its da’wist (preaching) religious movement. Decades of political learning within Morocco’s circumscribed political space created this adaption. The PJD has realized that a rigid Islamist ideology would not be conducive to their own existence and would entail, as the PJD leader, Abdelilah Benkirane told me during my field work, “rejection and confrontation yielding no results.”

This pragmatic style of governance has so far paid great electoral dividends. The challenge for the PJD will be to sustain its dual role of working within the system, while seeking to address its main challenges like corruption. Ultimately, the Islamist party’s strategy of playing “games in multiple arenas” depends on regime tolerance and the enduring appeal of its narrative of authenticity among the plurality of the electorate in Morocco.