Ten years after succeeding his father to the Moroccan throne, King Mohammed VI has implemented significant economic and social reforms but has not yet delivered the kind of political change many hoped for when he took power. The makhzen, the governing economic and political elite closely linked to the king, still dominates the political scene, as illustrated by the victory of the new Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM) in the June 2009 municipal elections. Established by a close ally of the king only five months before the elections, this party won 21.7 percent of the vote, the strongest showing, and further weakened the opposition. Electoral alliances with the monarchy seem to be taking precedence over genuine electoral competition based on ideas and programs, as elected members of parliament desert their old organizations to join this new party.
While the tradition of creating “palace parties” had been utilized by Hassan II, the launch of the PAM presents the first instance that Mohammed VI has authorized such actions. Despite the king’s commitment early in his reign to broaden the political playing field, the makhzen is now crowding out other parties by backing the birth and growth of a party essentially led by the king’s friends, allies, clients, and would-be clients. The PAM is not only counterbalancing Islamist and leftist parties, but also calls into question the survival of many of the more than 30 political parties that compete in the fragmented Moroccan political arena.
The Party of Authenticity and Modernity: A “New” Challenger
The PAM was organized by Fouad El Himma, the former interior minister and the King’s closest counselor, and involved the merger of five smaller parties.
Since it inherited the deputies of the five merged parties, the PAM became the largest player in parliament without even participating in parliamentary elections (last held in 2007). Many other elected representatives also abandoned their parties in order to join the PAM. Even former left-wing human rights activists imprisoned by Hassan II have joined the party, hoping to be rehabilitated through the king’s favor.
In appealing to voters, the PAM advertised itself as the political alternative to the Kutla, the coalition that has formed the country’s recent governments. This coalition comprises the Istiqlal Party (PI), a conservative, right-wing party, and the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP), historic opposition parties that eventually entered the government. The PAM was particularly opposed to the Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD), competing with it over the issue of Moroccan authenticity and identity. The PAM did very well by campaigning intensively in rural areas, distinguishing itself from the other parties, which usually focus more on winning major cities.
In the municipal elections, the PAM ran a highly visible campaign; however, its success is largely due to a network of influential and wealthy notables who were able to finance the campaigns and leverage local patronage and services, rather than to a new set of political ideas or a wave of community activism. This approach worked for the recent election, but could cost the PAM in the future as it is not founded on a stable grassroots following. The party has also been unable to avoid widespread charges of vote-buying and corruption. It remains to be seen whether the party will be able to retain its base and candidates until the next legislative elections, to be held in 2012.
The Decline of the Left and the Islamists
The electoral success of the PAM can also be explained by the difficulties other parties have found in maintaining or renewing their legitimacy. For example, the USFP only garnered 11.6 percent of the vote in the municipal elections. Eleven years after joining the government in 1998, the USFP has been unable to achieve its promised reform of the constitution, which calls for an enhanced role for the prime minister to balance the king’s powers. It has also been unable to block government actions against striking workers during social crises. Seeing its social base deteriorating, the USFP attempted an electoral rapprochement strategy with the PJD in the June elections. In most districts, however, this alliance was defeated by those established by the PAM with other parties such as the Istiqlal party.
As for the PJD, its candidates only won 5.4 percent of the vote in the recent municipal elections, down from 13 percent in the 2003 local elections. This decrease is partly due to clever redistricting by the Ministry of Interior (which also impacted the PJD in the 2007 parliamentary elections), which resulted in 85 percent of the country’s municipalities being categorized as rural (the PJD is strongest in urban areas). It is also partly due to restraint on the part of the PJD. Immediately after the 2003 terrorist attacks in Casablanca, the party, facing pressure from the makhzen, chose to run in less than one fifth of the electoral districts to avoid being viewed as a threat or linked to terrorism. This compromise with the monarchy, however, diluted the PJD’s credibility in promising change and weakened its grassroots support. This loss of credibility extended beyond the PJD’s own voters: many of the followers of al-Adl wal-Ihsan, an Islamist association banned by the monarchy from participating in elections, also chose not to vote for the PJD as they had in the past.
Finding a Balance Between Makhzen Control and Political Party Competition
In contrast to Hassan II, Mohamed VI is no longer directly involved in determining the outcome of the elections, and significant progress has been made in limiting the interference of the institutions of state, especially the Ministry of Interior, in the elections. But by supporting the establishment and growth of the PAM—a party without an ideological basis that relies on clientelist alliances—the monarchy risks undermining the party system and electoral process. Recent reforms that had been promoted by the king, such as those concerning the political participation of women and youth and the fight against low participation rates, will not have a meaningful impact if elections and political parties are increasingly dominated from the top.
A fairly low official participation rate of 52.4 percent (mainly rural voters), and 1,767 complaints of fraud, vote buying, threats, or assault during the recent municipal elections, have shown the limits of a top-down management of the political process. The monarchy should reconsider the way the makhzen elite is entering and attempting to dominate political life. Preserving and increasing the margin of real political participation and competitive elections will not weaken the state, but rather increase levels of participation, boost the legitimacy of the system, and improve system performance by enhancing real accountability and injecting new forces and ideas into the political process.
For their part, political parties should avoid aligning themselves exclusively with the makhzen elites. They should adopt political strategies that focus more on grassroots work, the training of activists, and voter education and mobilization.
As he celebrates his first decade in power, the future of the “executive monarchy” that Mohamed VI is trying to build faces a key challenge: how to ensure the democratic but not invasive political integration of his allies and supporters in political life, while allowing a functioning opposition to engage on issues of social and economic reform. It is only in achieving this balance that the king, still widely popular among Moroccans, can effectively leverage his neutrality, creating a more functional political system and a more dynamic space for development.