Moroccans head to the polls tomorrow for the first time since King Mohammed VI offered significant concessions towards democracy, with continued scepticism about the extent power has shifted to the people. Social activists have announced a boycott of the elections and turnout is expected to be low, with the Islamic PJD party tipped to emerge as the largest party.
With dictatorial leaders falling in nearby Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, Morocco’s elections are a testing ground both of the King’s reforming credentials and of the theory that Arab countries can achieve democracy without major change at the top.
In February, on the back of revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, tens of thousands of Moroccans took to the streets, calling for human rights and democracy in a country ruled by the Alaouite dynasty since independence in 1956. Yet, unlike in Tunisia or Egypt, the King remained popular with many of his subjects and was quick to offer reforms, including higher wages and an improved level of democracy, plans that were overwhelming approved in a new referendum in July.
The new constitution promises to give the pre-existing parliament more power, with the largest party automatically nominating the prime minister and the King losing control over many areas of policy. Senior opposition figures have dismissed the changes as window dressing and are boycotting the elections, with thousands taking to the streets this week to protest.
“All the parties that supported constitutional reform were not demanding [it] before the Arab spring. So the guys who are now asking people to go vote and participate in the elections, all of them were explaining to us for years before the Arab Spring that we don’t need to reform the constitution. And all the people who are demanding reform are still demanding it i.e. they are not happy with what happened in July,” said Aboubakr Jamai, an award-winning Moroccan journalist once given a three-month suspended sentence after reports in his magazine accused a Moroccan minister of corruption.
Sources close to the King are quick to point out that the new constitution restricts his power and could, over time, transform him into a constitutional monarch. Ed Gabriel, former American ambassador to Morocco, said: “I think that the whole reform initiative was started by the King of Morocco. There is a lot of excitement to move in the direction of reform, he must also empower civil society a lot more than before.”
“In reading this constitution it is not unlike the constitutional changes in Spain 20 to 30 years ago. In that case some of the power was held by the monarch, as it is today, specifically religious affairs.”
The February 20 movement, which led the protests against the regime earlier this year, is urging its supporters to reject the poll and it is expected that turnout could be lower than 50 per cent. “The government has to show the protesters they are for real. Many of them are holding back saying – ‘we don’t believe it, we don’t trust it.’ The proof is in the pudding,” Mr Gabriel added.
There are few reliable polls in Morocco but the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) is tipped to form the biggest block in the parliament, with around 80-90 seats in the 395-member parliament. Under the new constitution they will automatically be able to choose the prime minister, but the decision could still be rejected by the King.
“The PJD needs over 190 seats for a majority but it won’t get that. [It] has serious difficulties in the rural areas and that is where the most seats are. To compensate for that they have to over-perform in urban areas,” said Anouar Boukhars, an expert on Moroccan politics.
The PJD, who take inspiration from the ruling AK Party in Turkey, will be forced to form a coalition with parties it disagrees with and in the event that it fails it will be forced to seek out a higher power – the King.
“The prime minister will be from the PJD but it will not change anything in the system, in the sense that the government will be a patchwork of parties who have nothing to do with each other,” said Hicham Almiraat, a Moroccan February 20th activist and blogger. “The King will play the role of arbiter of all this – so we are back to square one.”