Moderate Islamists make moderate gains in Morocco’s elections

Developing Just Leadership

M K Abdullah

Sha'ban 09, 1423 2002-10-16

Occupied Arab World

by M K Abdullah (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 31, No. 16, Sha'ban, 1423)

Morocco’s “moderate” Islamic Justice and Development Party (JDP) was the major gainer in the country’s elections last month, when results were finally announced on October 1, four days after the polling on September 27. The announcement of the results was postponed twice, due to the “complexity of the counting process”, according to interior minister Driss Jettou. However, independent observers believe the delay was necessary to engineer moderate results so as not to cause a stir among the population and maintain a natural balance of power.

The Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP), led by prime minister Abderahman Yousoufi, took the largest number of seats, 50, despite suffering the greatest losses to the PJD. It is widely speculated that the result-engineering was aimed at ensuring that the USFP remained the largest single party and was not overtaken by the PJD. The last elections were rigged in the USFP’s favour after the late King Hassan decided to give them a chance to rule.

The USFP was closely followed by its ally, the conservative Al-Istiqlal Party (PI), with 48 seats, with the PJP moving into third place with 42 seats, up from 14 in the last parliament. The National Independent Rally, Morocco’s fourth largest party, will have 41 seats in Parliament, which is elected for a five-year term.

The PJD’s success came despite that fact that Morocco’s largest and most popular Islamic movement, the Adl wal Ihsan movement led by Shaikh Ahmad Yassin, is banned and boycotted the elections. The result was that even official figures put the voter turn-out at only 52 percent of Morocco’s 14 million voters; the true figure is likely to be much lower. Most political observers agree that, had it been authorised to take part in the election, and chosen to do so, Adl wal Ihsan would have had an overwhelming victory.

The low turn-out is a blow to the Moroccan regime, led by King Mohamed VI, widely seen as a “moderniser” and a “reformist.” Before the elections, the first to be held under Mohamed VI’s rule, the government had launched an aggressive campaign to encourage people to vote in what it described as “the most transparent and fairest elections since independence from France in 1956.”

Although the PJD, established in 1999, is avowedly “moderate”, even its limited success immediately raised the spectre of Islamic fundamentalism among Western and secular observers. Although PJD advocates a return to Shari’ah (much was made by Western commentators of its advocacy of segregated beaches and of a total ban on alcohol, issues that concern them closely), Abdelilah Benkiran, one of the founders of the party, denied any “fundamentalist” leanings and said that they would consider going into government as part of a coalition with the conservative Istiqlal Party, though not the socialist USFP.

Although additional time will be needed for any new government to take shape, the USFP is likely to head any new coalition. The prime minister will be appointed by the king in a few weeks, after extensive political bargaining. Present prime minister Abderahman Yousoufi is expected to remain in office, however.

US state department spokesman Richard Boucher “lauded” the elections and underlined his country’s interest in the ongoing democratic process in Morocco, while France gave special recognition to the Moroccan authorities’ action to guarantee the transparency and honesty of the polling.

The reality, however, is that there was little ‘democracy’ involved in the elections, as is the norm in Arab countries which proudly proclaim their democratizing credentials. Quite apart from the banning of what is recognised as the country’s most popular political movement, the elected parliament has in any case little real power. The government tends to be dominated by ministers appointed directly by the king and answerable only to him, rather than to parliament.

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