Last week was a critical moment for democracy in the Middle East: Egyptians fought to reclaim their revolution in massive demonstrations, the Bahraini government accepted the findings of a frank report on its human rights record, and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh finally signed an agreement to give up power. But in a more subdued iteration of the Arab Spring, Morocco held early parliamentary elections on Nov. 25 that, while not particularly eventful, actually tell us quite a bit about the country’s political climate: The current path of reform initiated by the monarchy is not aggressive enough to satisfy demands for greater democracy and political parties are seen to be incapable of bringing about that change themselves.
Like the rest of the Middle East and North Africa, Morocco was faced with popular protests earlier this year. However, in contrast to other rulers who responded to demonstrations with force and refused to make concessions until too late, King Mohammad VI quickly promised constitutional reforms, getting ahead of protesters and effectively undermining their influence. Democracy activists saw this as little more than the king’s tried and true strategy of implementing superficial changes to appease the public without changing the country’s fundamental power structure. Indeed, while the amended constitution empowers the parliament and prime minister, ultimate authority still remains in the hands of the king. Nonetheless, the king remains immensely popular among the general public and the constitutional referendum on July 1, which was seen more as a referendum on the king rather than for the details of the reform package, was approved by 98 percent of the voters. Human rights and opposition groups, however, questioned the legitimacy of the vote, citing pressure from both mosques and local officials to vote yes, media propaganda, lack of voter education, and alleged vote-rigging.
Long seen as one of the most moderate and progressive countries in the Arab world, Morocco now risks falling behind the curve as democracy movements sweep the region. Coming on the heels of the constitutional referendum, the parliamentary elections last week were a first test of whether Moroccans continue to have faith in the king’s approach of gradual reform. More so than the election results, voter turnout was seen to be the real indicator of whether people bought into the system. While the youth-led February 20 movement and several left-wing and Islamist political parties called for a boycott of the parliamentary elections and organized protests in the major cities in the days before the election, the government actively encouraged citizens to vote through ubiquitous poster campaigns and televised public service announcements.
With 45 percent voter turnout, it appears that the general population lies somewhere in between these two extremes: not openly supporting the February 20 movement, which remains a diffuse group with popularity limited to the major cities, but also not eager to participate in a political process that is unlikely to bring about real change.
In the charming but quiet medieval city of Meknes — the 5th largest in Morocco — where I traveled for the final day of campaigning and election day, there were barely any signs of an election at all. Areas designated for political posters were completely blank, and there were no boycott protests or major political rallies on the streets. This lack of excitement and political activity appears to have been a problem throughout the country. The government has presented the 45 percent turnout rate as a sign of voter enthusiasm, or at the very least, an improvement on the historically low rate of 37 percent in 2007 elections. But these numbers can be misleading since they refer to the percentage of registered voters, and the number of registered voters has actually decreased from 15.5 million in 2007 to 13.5 million today. Furthermore, one would expect voter participation to be much higher than 45 percent in elections heralding a new era for the country, particularly when compared to the 51.6 percent turnout in 2002 and the 58.3 percent posted in the 1997 polls.
Perhaps even more troubling is the high number of spoiled ballots — up to 30 percent of all ballots cast at some polling stations — which represents another form of protest against the status quo. Although the number of invalid ballots was also an issue in the 2007 elections, this time around the ballots were spoiled with striking intensity and anger. Many were marked with a large X or forceful scribble across the page. One instructive ballot I came across had all the parties crossed off individually with "Party of Donkeys" written prominently on the paper.
Indeed, in conversations I had with people on the streets, political analysts, and civil society organizations, there appears to be a great deal of disdain for political parties, particularly among the youth. In a system where patronage and loyalty to the king and his "makhzan" (palace elite) guarantee victory at the polls and other benefits, parties have little incentive to develop programs that could advance the needs of the broader citizenry. Many people complained to me that party leaders only acknowledge their existence during the electoral campaign and then forget about their needs quickly after being voted into power. Although parties have repeatedly promised to change candidates in the face of voter malaise, the same corrupt actors return year after year. Moreover, perceptions are that the palace often plays the various parties against one another to ensure submission. In these elections, eight political parties with little in common ideologically were cobbled together to create the "G8" coalition that is accused of being a royalist attempt to counterbalance the moderate Islamic Justice and Development (PJD) party (which ended up garnering the highest total of votes). The constitutional reforms have marginally strengthened the role of parliament vis a vis the king, but the incompetence and inability of the traditional parties to stand up to the monarch obfuscates the positive democratic changes.
Some were hopeful that political parties could effect real change by incorporating principles enshrined in the new constitution into specific legislation. But the electoral laws issued in October suggest that the parties will squander future opportunities to improve the system. Electoral laws were initially drafted by the Ministry of Interior and then deliberated in closed-door sessions with entrenched party leaders, shutting out civil society actors and party members. The resulting electoral framework therefore maintained many of the weaknesses of previous laws. This included disproportionate districting and proportional representation with a largest remainder system that precludes any one party from getting a sizable plurality and encourages vote buying, as well as a separate list for the women’s quota that marginalizes female candidates within parties. As one young man crudely explained to me, "these reforms are like putting makeup on a pretty girl, wait take that back, an ugly girl! They aren’t real change."
The victory of the PJD in the elections is a testament to this desire for a fuller makeover by those who chose to vote. The only credible opposition party in parliament, the PJD focused its campaign on an impressive anti-corruption platform with concrete policy proposals. The constitutional reforms require the prime minister to come from the largest party in parliament, meaning the PJD will hold this post. Yet the PJD’s ability to bring about a radical transformation is constrained by two factors. First, given the aforementioned proportional representation system that results in a fractured parliament, the PJD with 27 percent of seats will now need to form a coalition with other parties — most likely those of the "Democratic Bloc" alliance — who are co-opted by the palace. Second, despite the fact that it shed its radical leanings decades ago, the party is viewed suspiciously by the regime and its allies, and has had to take a cautious approach to demonstrate that it is willing to work within the system. The change in party leadership in 2008 from Saad al-Din al-Uthmani, who wants a parliamentary monarchy, to Abdelilah Benkirane, who prefers to maintain a strong monarchy, reflects this calculation.
Both the low turnout and the PJD’s success show that Moroccans want genuine change, and won’t be fooled by superficial attempts to win them over. But it is clear that such meaningful change will not come from the king. With endemic corruption, decreasing quality of health care and housing, and increasing levels of unemployment, Moroccans suffer from the same issues that ail the rest of the Arab world. While they probably don’t want to go down the path of revolution, unless political parties take more ownership of the political process and stand up to the king, disaffected Moroccans may find they have nowhere to go but the streets.
Daphne McCurdy is a senior research associate at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED). She recently participated in an international observation mission for Morocco’s parliamentary elections.