Since the beginning of the century, this is the first Moroccan government that has faced protests during the first weeks of its appointment. This may be due to the weak legitimacy of the government and the circumstances of its appointment. As the apolitical elites take over the new Moroccan parliament, fears of an emerging "rentier" economic system surface as the conditions of the vulnerable groups further deteriorate. Does this signal the death of political life in Morocco or the return of the civil movement?
The threefold victory of the National Rally of Independents (RNI), and its ally the party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), in the parliamentary, municipal and regional elections held in Morocco on the September 8, 2021, delivered a heavy blow to the country’s traditional opposition parties of Islamists and independent left-wings. Inversely, the Islamist-associated Party of Justice and Development (PJD), which has been leading the country since the Moroccan Spring of 2011, suffered the heaviest loss as it came away with only 13 seats from its original 125 causing it to forfeit almost 90 percent of its House of Representatives seats.
The RNI and PAM, both traditionally associated with the palace, secured 102 seats and 86 seats, respectively. The RNI victory and the appointment Aziz Akhannouch, one of Morocco’s richest businessmen and a close friend of the king, as head of government seems advantageous in that it changed the sociological composition of the parliament and replaced politicians with apolitical upper ¬¬and middle class technocrats for the first time in four decades.
Some observers, however, believe that the Technocrats’ ascension to power will narrow the political space in Morocco. For decades, political parties in Morocco adopted a policy of openness and pragmatic approaches that went beyond their ideological differences and allowed patriotic, intellectual, and competent leftists and royalists to alternate succession to premiership from the 1970s to the 1990s, despite their modest influence on public policies, given their conservative or critical stance on the king’s authoritarianism and their social democratic and leftists agendas. Additionally, the technocrats will benefit from the lack of powerful and solid opposition in parliament.
The elections were the first, in almost two decades, where "dirty money" and interventionism by the authorities played a significant role in determining the winner. The association of authority's agents and their allies, mainly the Ministry of Interior, mobilized their forces in support of the RNI and its allies against the Islamists and sometimes against the leftists who openly criticize the Palace. When the RNI won, they publicly congratulated themselves taking credit for the win, thus putting the Ministry of Interior in an awkward and embarrassing position. In a widely trending post on social media, their coordination committee bragged about the effective role they played in bringing down the Islamic party, saying that they made sure that the government would inevitably fail implicitly in the elections.
They went on to proclaim that the fate of the defeated is ‘the dustbin of history’ and then expressed satisfaction at the results of the polls and demanded that the new government should keep its promise and reward them by improving their social conditions and granting them administrative promotions.
When one of the commentators suggested that they should be neutral, the coordination committee replied, "We are not neutral, we were told to vote for the liberals!"1
Furthermore, for the first time in two decades, evidence of ballot manipulation surfaced. According to the High Commission for Planning, two-thirds of registered voters are residents of villages and desert towns, while the proportion of the rural population of the age group eligible to vote does not exceed 33.9 percent, a fact that causes heightened suspicions. Many are left wondering why would the Ministry of Interior go through the trouble of registering the residents of the desert towns, raising their percentage to 94 percent of the total eligible voters?
The clear answer is that the administration undertook a tremendous effort in coaxing and coercing villagers simply because they are more submissive to authority and more adamant on preserving legitimacy.2 Voters in rural areas like north Morocco are also less politicized, more conservative, and more likely to trust the local elites and consider them their best representatives in Rabat. As for urban residents, they have a history of voting for the opposition parties, be it leftist or Islamist, depending on the circumstances.
Additionally, for the first time since the beginning of this century, the records of the election offices in major cities were not shared with party representatives, especially the PJD. This clearly violates the law and gives way to doubts concerning the integrity of the elections results especially as the public still recalls the 2016 legislative elections scandal when the JDP announced the results before the Ministry of Interior, causing a huge uproar that practically ended the political career of a former minister.
However, analysts do not explain the crushing defeat the PJD suffered only by the possible manipulation of elections’ results, nor by the internal pressures that prevented many party representatives from running for office (the number of candidates for the municipal elections in 2021 is only 53 percent of the number of candidates for the 2015 elections). There are other significant issues at play here, including the fact that most parties that have a large social base lose much of their popularity when they lead the government because they cannot carry out promised reforms because the government in Morocco does not have any real power to bring about significant change. Also, when they become part of the regime, they lose the moral glow opposition usually enjoys being the defenders and protectors of civil society in its sectoral battles.
The other, and more substantial reason for the loss, is that the PJD’s actions while in power alienated both secular and religious segments of society. By signing the Abraham Accords that normalized Morocco’s relations with Israel, they incurred the general wrath of patriotic Moroccans and when they legalised cannabis, they seemed to be shedding their Islamic identity altogether thus doubling the anger of the conservative society who saw this action as a betrayal of the party’s core ideological position.
Another possible reason is the new electoral law that was passed in order to allow smaller parties to be represented in the parliament. Many observers described the law as a “political move’ that aims to reduce the representation of popular parties and place them under the “electoral authoritarianism’ of the palace.
Now that weeks have passed since the elections and the appointment of the new government, we can say that the palace's hope of Aziz Akhannouch turning the page on the rule of Islamists and projecting a better image of the government may not go far. Social media was ablaze when he was appointed and several attacks were directed at the billionaire businessman, who, to many, represents the rentier economy and the illegal marriage between power and wealth; a concept which the Moroccan Spring rebelled against.
Akhannouch, however, is no stranger to public wrath. In 2018, his fuel distribution company was targeted by a boycott, which prompted the parliament to launch an investigation into competition in the fuel market. The parliament’s report allegedly concluded that his company and two others had made what is described as, ‘immoral profit’ that grossed about two billion American dollars. As minister of agriculture in the previous government, Akhannouch allowed farmers to make extensive use of butane gas for irrigation. This was viewed as irresponsible behaviour since Butane was subsidized with public money for domestic uses to preserve forest wealth and support families with limited resources.
Critics of the prime minister, and even the leader of PAM who is a member in the new government, voiced their concerns at the serious conflict of interests that Akhannouch’s new position entails, especially since his holding company controls the hydrocarbons market, including gas, and therefore benefits extensively from public subsidies.
The Competition Council, which is an independent constitutional body, sharing these concerns, recommended in an official report that these funds be returned indirectly to the public treasury. These recommendations immediately caused an uproar against the council and its president who was relieved of his position after being insulted and defamed by the media close to the authority.
There is no question that Aziz Akhannouch had a powerful political presence before his premiership, but as he takes his new position at the center of the Moroccan political scene questions about his ability to maintain this power arise. Only the future will tell if his new position will bring about stability and prosperity or spur a public movement against his past controversial behavior that could tarnish the legitimacy of the regime, which flourished in the wake of the Arab Spring.
Maati Monjib is a Moroccan historian, political analyst, and human rights activist.
1 The author has a photocopy of the response
2 Fellah marocain défenseur du trône, Presses de la FNSP, Paris, 1976