By Anouar Boukhars
By Anouar Boukhars
Morocco World News
Washington D.C, November 23, 2011
On Friday, Morocco will hold highly anticipated parliamentary elections. The contest is widely seen a test of royal reforms. Mohammed VI clearly placed his bet on measured reforms to reduce social tensions and lift the country’s political malaise. By organizing early elections, the palace hopes that the influx of new faces into government and parliament would convince the majority of Moroccans that credible steps towards reforms are underway and real political and economic change is on the horizon. After all, the country has not seen this momentum for change for decades. To prove the skeptics wrong would of course require more than a change in the cast of characters.
The plurality of Moroccan voters is still skeptical that the election will bring change they can believe in. Political parties have so far failed to inspire hope for real political change. The Herculean task of gaining voters’ confidence and trust is amply visible during the current campaign for the November 25 legislative elections. Very few Moroccans believe that Morocco’s established political parties can take advantage of the opportunities that the new Moroccan political pact offers.
Despite its failure to significantly limit the king’s powers, the 2011 constitution provides a margin of political maneuverability that did not previously exist. Most importantly, it enhances legislative capacity and access to the policy realm, and desacralizes the sovereign’s acts and power. Under the proposed reforms, parliament—which had long been relatively weak—now has the potential to play a more assertive role. The key question, then, is whether Morocco’s political parties are up to the task and ready to push the democratic envelope on constitutionally permissive activities. Constitutions matter, but what matters more is what people do with them.
Thus far, most political parties have failed to generate popular enthusiasm and interest. Even the most credible opposition political party, the Party of Justice and Development (PJD), pains to convince voters of its capacity to effectively shape the development and governance trajectories of the Kingdom. Senior figures in the Islamist party have expressed to me their concern about low voter turnout. Low participation would seriously impact the party’s chances of winning the parliamentary contest.
The electoral law with its malapportionment favors rural areas, where the Islamists have almost no support and where turnout is always much higher than in urban areas. The PJD cannot compensate for this weakness unless it over–performs on election day in its strongholds in urban areas. That probably cannot happen without higher turnout.
The regime must also be concerned about low turnouts and the impact that might have on popular perceptions of the meaningfulness of elections. It is important to note, however, that low popular participation will not signify support for the dwindling February 20 protest movement. The latter has called for boycott of the electoral contest, but the main reason many Moroccan voters might stay home is due to the ineptitude of the political class. But this is no reason for complacency. Confidence in electoral processes is critical to the success of the political reforms recently inaugurated in Morocco. Despite broad support for the King’s reform effort, most Moroccans expect that the reform process lead quickly to accountable and responsible governance, and low level of economic inequality. Unless immediate remedial measures are taken to prevent corruption in the public sphere and redress the glaring social and economic disparities, Morocco is poised to experience tough times ahead. Unemployment figures are already dangerously high, standing at 31.4 percent for those under 35. Young people in this age bracket also constitute 57% of the thirteen million Moroccans that are registered to vote.
As it stands, it would be unrealistic to expect a high turnout in Friday’s election. Morocco is just emerging from the twin legacy of monarchical dominance of politics and subservience of a self-serving political class.
The electoral schedule has complicated the parties’ task as it left little time for them to hold their conventions, hone their electoral programs, and showcase that in this historic time of regional change, they are determined to renew themselves. Despite these challenges, it is extremely crucial that the elections are perceived as fair and free from the manipulative practices of vote buying and other undue influences.
The electoral integrity of the contest will boost the credibility of elections and legitimacy of the newly reformed institutions of the state. Only free and fair elections, Saadeddine Othmani, of the PJD, told me, can produce the new political elite the country so badly needs. It is also these elites that would be tasked with drafting the many “organic laws” that the new constitution stipulates.
In other words, transitional periods, as Morocco is currently experiencing, are naturally characterized by limited levels of democracy and low popular participation, but as civic consciousness rises and free and fair political competition becomes fully routinized, potent political parties and civil society actors are bound to emerge, strengthening in the process the institutions of government and driving levels of democracy up.
The Moroccan regime has navigated quite successfully the treacherous times of the Arab awakening, though its institutional reforms did not gain the acquiescence of the February 20th protest movement, which remains fractured, disorganized, and lacking popular support. Nevertheless, the monarchy would be advised to take seriously the demands of the protesters, especially those dealing with corruption, rule of law, and public accountability.
That starts with the November 25th elections where over 30 parties would be competing for 395 seats, ninety of which are reserved for women and younger deputies. The place must resist the urge to intervene in the affairs of the upcoming elected government, even one led by the PJD.
King Mohammed has declared his commitment to substantive reform and democratization. The constitution’s provisions allow the monarch to use his significant prerogatives to advance or block real changes. What he does, and chooses not to do, is critical. The stakes are considerable. If constitutional reforms consecrate the separation of powers and independence of the legislature and judiciary, the regional implications would indeed be significant. Morocco has the potential to become a model of top-down reforms.
Anouar Boukhars is an assistant professor of international relations at McDaniel College. Dr. Boukhars is also a former visiting fellow with the Brookings Doha Center.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Morocco World News’ editorial policy.
This is from the text of Anouar Boukhars’ presentation at the panel discussion on Moroccan Elections organized by MWN and Middle East Institute at Columbia University.
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