The Moroccan 2007 parliamentary elections did not take place

(With apologies to Jean Baudrillard)

Little by little on Saturday the results of Morocco's parliamentary elections leaked out. First, in the morning, we heard that the PJD still felt it would come first of 33 parties but would still get less than the 60-70 it expected, compared to the 43 it had in the exiting parliament. Then, in the early afternoon, rumors started spreading that the traditionalist Istiqlal party -- the grandfather of Moroccan political parties -- had in fact come first, and that the PJD might only get 50. Finally, at the end of the day, we learned that the PJD had only gotten 47 seats, compared to the Istiqlal's 52. The other surprise being that the leftist USFP only got 36 seats, slipping from second to fifth in popularity, while the mostly rural-centered "notable parties" MP and RNI made a serious advance and came in third and fourth respectively.

It had been widely assumed by the press and most political analysts that the PJD would see a major breakthrough, notably because of IRI polls in 2006 that gave it a ridiculous 45%. Although it's hard to compare because of electoral redistricting and a complex new electoral law, in 2002 the PJD had only run in about half the country's constituencies and had performed well. This time around, the PJD ran in all but one constituencies but barely got a few extra seats.

That result is probably in part due to the Machiavellian new electoral system, in which voters get to pick local and nationalist party lists, including for the 30 seats reserved to women. This electoral system, largely manufactured by former royal advisor Fouad Ali al-Himma (who since controversially left his post to run in the elections -- he won, as expected), basically made it impossible for any party to win a clear cut majority. It made winning all the seats in a district (typically there were three in each of 95 districts) impossible, because to do so a party had to win almost all the votes in that district. This, in turn, ensured that even small parties with a local following (local notables, for instance) could win at least one seat.

The other product of this electoral system, especially compared to the normal first-past-the-post system used in the 1990s when Morocco's elections were routinely rigged, is that there is an almost total absence of the concept of leadership in politics. Lists are local, and of course MPs have to campaign locally and get their constituents to like them, but there is no real nationwide sense of who a political party's leaders are except among the educated and politically curious. In Israel, another country that uses a proportional representation system, party leadership is important and can often determine a party's popularity over the identity of the local MK -- hence the political superstars of Ariel Sharon or Benjamin Netanyahu.

Combine this absence of clear leadership-driven politics with the narrow consensus the regime has more or less forced the political parties to operate -- for instance no large parties makes much of what democracy activists, serious journalists and political scientists consider to be Morocco's priority, constitutional reform -- and you have a very boring elections were the difference between party programs is hard to see and everyone campaigns on vague promises of fighting corruption and creating more jobs. No wonder the election campaign was so subdued and, well, boring.

This apathy is so pervasive that despite this being the election in which the Moroccan regime has made the most efforts to get people to register, with a huge registration campaign taking place for the past six months, only an estimated 42% of Moroccans bothered to go to vote yesterday (update: Sunday it appeared the turnout was closer to 38%). This is a historic low, much lower than the 52% participation rate of 2002. This might almost amount to a slap in the face of the political system, if not King Muhammad VI who only six weeks ago had condemned "nihilists" who thought the elections were pointless and urged his subjects to vote. In certain respects, this election was cast as a confirmation of Muhammad VI's legitimacy, since it is only the second since he ascended to the throne in 1999. I'm not sure whether these results reduce his prestige, but they certainly raise important question about the castrated political system his advisors have carefully crafted over the last few years. As do indications that a large proportion that the votes that were cast were blank or deliberately spoiled as a form of protest.

One amusing thing is that the PJD is now complaining about vote-buying and other irregularities. I have no doubt they happened in places. But everyone I spoke to among the political class agreed that these elections would be the cleanest ever at least when it came to government action -- in terms of security forces especially not intervening in favor of candidates and acting swiftly to correct fraud. This is what Lahcen Douadi, the PJD's #2, told me a few days ago. He is now crying foul. It may be that serious fraud, with the help of the regime, took place -- election observers will let us know about that, even though thus far it seems they are happy. But one has to wonder, as their Islamists opponents from the banned Adl wal Ihsan movement (with a base estimated at about four times the PJD) like to say, whether potential PJD voters were disappointed that it looked like a lot of the other parties and soft-pedaled the Islamist component of its platform. One would have thought that a low turnout would have favored the PJD and its strong grassroots presence, at least in urban areas. Lesson to Islamist parties: just because the AKP and Hamas are doing well, it doesn't mean that you're automatically going to perform well in your own country if you don't have anything new to offer.

One may puzzle at the PJD's strong performance considering the low turnout. Conventional wisdom has it that, in countries where political apathy is high, Islamist parties' strong grassroots may actually over-represent them in election with low turnouts. From what I could see during the campaigning, the PJD's members who were doing the campaigning were certainly dedicated believers. But they were small in numbers, and it's not clear that they always got across the poor voters they were targeting. One lesson from this election is that, because of the regional context and a pervasive "the Islamists are coming" discourse, many may have overestimated the PJD's actual appeal, even if only as a protest vote.

Once again, I am not entirely convinced by the PJD's accusations that there was massive fraud in the campaign -- as I said, Lahcen Daoudi only a few days ago was praising the ministry of interior for taking action swiftly against fraud for the first time in Moroccan electoral history. It's hardly surprising that, as observers noted, there was some foul-play -- the important thing in my eye is that the authorities were not involved in it, as in Egypt in 2005 or previous Moroccan elections. There were even reports that relatives of candidates who were serving in the police were called back to Rabat during the elections to avoid any potential conflict of interest! The one exception to this, of course, is politics in the Western Sahara, where of course police brutality is unfortunately routine and there is a long history of building up the pro-Morocco Rguibat tribe in local politics against pro-Polisario Sahrawis. I am not sure how the election took place there, but I doubt it had the same level of cleanliness as, say, Rabat. (I am surprised to learn, however, that Dakhla was the city with the highest turnout.)

Like many secular, middle class Moroccans I am rather happy that the PJD did not come first. I don't find their cheap rhetoric about Islamic values being a kind of ISO2000 certification (as one PJDiste explained to me) appealing, and have to wonder about whether their slogan "We Are The Muslims" means that they think everyone else is a kafr. It's a rather loaded slogan these days. On Sunday night, on a busy street in the upmarket district of Agdal in Rabat, there was a procession of cars driven by the PJD, full of people celebrating their victory. I noticed the cars were full of families, included eight year old girls wearing the hijab, which I definitely have a problem with, chanting Islamist slogans. Apparently, they were given instructions to celebrate a minor advance as a victory.

Aside from the political operators, who can be very charming, I see the movement behind the PJD (Harakat at-Tawhid wal-Islah -- Monotheism and Reform -- better known by its French acronym MUR) as rather a typical carrier of "globalized Salafism" -- not necessarily the extreme thoughts of current mainstream Salafism (not the original Egyptian one), but a diluted and more vague version of them. Their trashy newspaper, at-Tajdid, is forever charging against windmills of sleaze and civilizational decline (more often than not represented by the ample curves of Lebanese pop tarts). It's not Islamism as a thinking political philosophy (of the kind a few genuinely interesting Islamist thinkers entertain) but as a populist, slightly xenophobic, us-VS-them philosophy, with a good dash of moronic Gulfie values thrown in for good measures.

That being said, despite that the Fassi party won (the Fassis are Morocco's domineering bourgeois elite that founded the Istiqlal, my family name is typically Fassi), the Istiqlal isn't exactly exciting. First of all, it shares some of the conservative values of the PJD, which I do not. Secondly, it is an "administrative party" by excellence, looking to the palace for instructions. It may have competent individuals, but its success hardly represents a broadening of the political elite that many would like to see. Most importantly, it is cowardly and submissive (in all fairness, like most parties) on the crucial issue of constitutional reform. Whatever constitutional reform takes place over the next few years will be consensus driven -- even the PJD, or at least the wing of it led by Saad Eddin Othmani, had conceded to that. This means minimal concessions from the king unless those MPs and political leaders who want these concessions (real independence of the judiciary, and end to royal ministries, parliamentary oversight of the ministry of interior) really push for them. These people are present among the intellectual elite as well as in politics (notably the USFP offshoot PSU, the hardline wing of the PJD, the far left and the banned Adl wal Ihsan Islamist movement). Whether they chose to fight for it will remain to be seen -- the co-optive power of the Makhzen, that security-economic complex that has ruled Morocco for decades, is formidable.

Long story short: the 2007 Moroccan parliamentary elections did not take place. The low turnout suggests few cared about them, and their result means little will change for the next five years. These were virtual elections, taking place among largely interchangeable political parties and within the confines of an electoral system brilliantly designed to generate maximum inertia (Fouad Ali al-Himma, bravo!) The elections, apparently so squeaky clean, served their purpose of advancing a discourse of steadily improving governance in Morocco -- one important for Western powers that like to see Morocco, which let's not forget is still an absolute monarchy, as a rare ally to boast about in the region. It is yet another good case study for why, when looking at democratization, elections really matter little: they are a spectacle for public and international consumption with minimal impact on political reality.

Perhaps we knew that already. But Muhammad VI cannot benefit from the novelty that he is not Hassan II forever. No one can contest many things have improved markedly since he became king. But you have to wonder, beyond new highways, ports and tourism projects that Sidna is forever inaugurating, where this country is heading. Banking on economic growth and technocratic savvy may work for a while, but it does not a democracy make.

Some good links:

  • Your Majesty, one is free to comment - RSF slams king in open letter for repression of the press
  • Ibn Kafka - Great French-language blog (I had the pleasure of dining with its author) with tons of election coverage, lately also in English on Aqoul.
  • What the nihilists think - An English-language Moroccan bloggers answers Muhammad VI's accusations that those who doubt the usefulness of these elections in such a tightly controlled system are "nihilists." It includes some good discussion of the constitutional reform issue.
  • Brian Ulrich links to a profile of Maguy Kakan, a Jewish candidate on the national lists for women.
  • Gloom grips Morocco slum as election approaches - good Reuters story on Sidi Moumen, the slum where 16 May 2003 terrorists came from.
  • The king still runs the show - The Economist
  • Al Miraat, another good Moroccan blog that has this great recording of a BBC "World Have Your Say" discussion with none other than the Red Prince himself, Moulay Hisham.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.