Morocco elections aren't a model for the Arab Spring as West claims

Contrary to the West's view, Morocco's parliamentary elections this weekend didn't signal a bold step toward democracy. They showed just how far the country has to go to achieve real reforms – and how much more power the king must give up.

As the world turned its attention to the massive and sustained demonstrations in Egypt last week, much smaller but nevertheless significant protests took place in Morocco leading up to Friday’s parliamentary elections. As the country prepared for the first elections since King Mohammed VI implemented reforms last summer to give that body more power, thousands of Moroccans took to the streets in Casablanca, Rabat, and Tangier, calling for regime change.

The demonstrations highlight the wide gap between the West’s vision of Morocco as a leading example of how to transition into democracy, and the average Moroccan’s view of a regime reluctant to release power.

The West has been veritably giddy about King Mohammed VI’s “progressive” democratic reforms – implemented to head off Arab Spring turmoil and appease protesters. American Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton heralded the constitutional reforms that paved the way for this Friday’s elections as an “important step toward democratic reform” by a “longstanding friend, partner, and ally of the United States.” French President Nicolas Sarkozy, too, commended the king for embarking on a “path to democracy."

Yet viewed from within, the constitutional reforms passed in July look very different. Under the new constitution, the king loses his “sacred status” and appoints a prime minister from the majority party in parliament. But the king has not loosened his grip on ultimate power, maintaining control over the religious establishment, the military, and all security matters. He can also implement “emergency law” and maintains veto power over all minister appointments. All laws must still be confirmed by the king.

Independent voices from the opposition were not involved in the reform process this summer. The ultimate demands of the February 20 Movement for Change movement were not met. Rather, the king relied on the political parties that have historically supported his monarchy to pass the initial reform.

Indeed, the 98.5 percent approval rate in the July 1 constitutional referendum highlighted how little had changed. If anything, the extraordinary rate reflected the authoritarian rule of the king’s father, Hassan II, more than the democratic reform of the “progressive” king.

Still, Friday’s elections showed signs of progress. Voter turnout was up from 37 percent in the last elections to 45 percent. And the moderate Islamist PJD (Justice and Development Party) – the former opposition party – earned unprecedented success, coming out on top with 107 of the parliament’s 395 seats. These developments suggest real reform may be possible. But there is a long way to go.

Parties played old political games. A pre-electoral alliance of eight ideologically diverse parties, from Islamists to conservatives, is better understood as a vehicle for political ambition than of ideologically driven, vibrant political parties. The counter-alliance prompted many to see the parties as dividing spoils before elections, with little regard for the voters. They were engaged primarily in a quest to be close to the center of power, not a struggle for change.

Citizens were largely disengaged. When the campaign season opened Nov. 12 there was little sign of the upcoming polls. Earlier this month, as I walked Rabat’s brightly decorated streets, crowded with people celebrating the end of Eid, only headlines unveiling party platforms and political intrigues hinted at impending elections.

Campaigns did gather some momentum as the election approached, but not because people believed they would change Morocco’s political future. Rather, many hoped to take advantage of the electoral season to draw candidates’ attention (and resources) to local problems. Others hoped to benefit more directly – and often financially – from mobilizing the “electoral market.”

Few believe the new parliament will solve the many problems plaguing nearly 35 million Moroccans, where 1 in 3 young, urban males are unemployed and poverty is widespread.

A large part of the struggle over Morocco’s democratic future is not taking place within the elections, but outside them. A broad-ranging opposition coalition, from small leftist parties to the Feb. 20 movement, which arose at the beginning of regional Arab uprisings, and the popular, outlawed Islamist Al Adl Wa Al Ihssane group, called for a boycott. They hoped to use elections to call for real change.

And although voter turnout remained strong, their movement had an effect.

Campaign pamphlets and speeches frontlined calls for dignity, social justice, and fighting corruption, all brought to the fore in last spring’s demonstrations. Demonstrators, while small in number, made surprisingly strident calls for a change in regime, often drawing greater attention than the election rallies.

Perhaps most important, the parties reminded observers that the changes that followed last spring appeared more dramatic to the King’s Western allies than they did to most Moroccans.

Morocco’s problems remain unsolved, fueling widespread discontent and continued demand for reform. In the new Arab world, sluggish, half-hearted reforms of the last two decades no longer appease the people, in Morocco or elsewhere. Friday’s elections, and a parliament led by the moderate Islamist PJD party, may be a step forward in democratic reform. But, to make this hope a reality, the king still needs to take significant steps toward relinquishing power.

Ellen Lust is an associate professor of political science at Yale University specializing in Middle East politics.

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