By Mark Mahon
By Mark Mahon
Rabat – Morocco will vote tomorrow for a new parliament and a new government. On November 8, the United States will elect a new president, as well as 34 senators, all 435 members of the House of Representatives, and numerous other local officials.
I am an American living in Morocco and I love politics. While not an expert on Morocco’s political heritage or culture, I make a few observations that show some similarities as well as differences between the United States and Morocco as both nations go to the polls.
Important juncture & Outsiders
Both countries are at an important juncture. For Morocco, the 2016 national elections are the second since the constitutional reforms of 2011. The elections in late 2011 witnessed the fast rise to prominence of the Justice & Development Party (JPD). It’s general secretary and leader, Abdelillah Benkirane would become prime minister as part of a governing coalition. He faced formidable tasks: navigate the Arab Spring tumult (demonstrated by the limitless passion of the February 20 Movement), reform Morocco’s cumbersome bureaucracy, reform the nation’s generous subsidy programs in a way that would be palatable to the masses, and increase foreign investment and private enterprise in Morocco to help bring down the stubbornly high unemployment rate (nearly a quarter of college graduates are unemployed). All this while insuring that the king is on board with the general direction of the legislative agenda.
Morocco’s coalition tradition and constitutional requirements insure that the “system” would allow this agenda to move forward; rarely quickly, often with significant alterations, and always to the frustration of one coalition party or former-coalition partner. Morocco’s foreign minister, Salaheddine Mezouar, is a member of the National Rally of Independents (RNI) Party. The nature of coalition politics here probably makes for uncomfortable alliances, difficult conversations and short tea breaks. It is admirable, though, to this non-Moroccan. National unity. Working together on broad goals. Shwiya b shwiya. In the US, presidential elections are winner-take-all. The inauguration of a new president takes place about eight weeks after the election. A president’s cabinet (the group of minister-level agency heads) are members of his party. But a recent phenomenon has seen the winning candidate select one cabinet post to be led by a member of the opposite party. A spirit of bipartisanship.
The United States will elect a successor to Barak Obama, the nation’s first African-American president who, in his 2008 election victory, managed to win the support of a broad cross-section of the American electorate. An important demographic in US elections are the so-called suburban voters: generally middle-class families, often – but not always – white. They are often considered socially progressive and fiscally conservative. His re-election in 2012 also saw a modest decline in support among white men (down 43% to 39% of that group). Political analysts, campaign organizers and media consultants love to dissect the general electorate into groups to better focus the political messaging.
While the US economy is growing modestly and has created millions of private sector jobs during the Obama Presidency, people generally feel anxious about their future. Add to this the drawn-out military engagement in Afghanistan, combating Daesh, a resurgent Russian foreign policy and Americans are, once again, filled with anxiety. The table is now set for the final sprint to the finish line between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump.
There is also a Libertarian Party candidate and a Green Party candidate running for president. While they have gained media attention, and they both actively campaign across America, regulatory barriers, fund raising challenges and the modern political heritage of the US make Presidential-level third party challenges difficult. Third party candidates do win elections at state and local levels.
American political tradition often dictates that one candidate brands himself/herself as the “outsider” who will “shake things up.” Donald Trump has embraced this role with relish. He is the first presidential candidate in modern American history with no previous elected office experience: he has not served as a governor, senator, or member of the House of Representatives. He has shown no interest in policy details, but he embraces “the outsider” mantle. And this has resonance in American political culture: it helps explain Obama’s victory in 2008, as well as Clinton’s victory in 1992 and Ronald Reagan in 1980. They won vowing to “shake up” the status quo. It should be noted that all three had previously served as either a US governor or senator.
The rise of the JDP may have a similar story line: The current power structure was not serving the Moroccan people. The haves would continue to have, and the have-nots would make due as best they could. The JDP promised to change that. A 2013 Telquel poll of Moroccans found public corruption to be far-and-away the number one issue confronting society. The JDP seems to have built an impressive grassroots political machine, especially among the young. It’s 2015 regional and local election victories in the country’s big cities were so impressive that it would be considered, in the US, a bit of a mandate: affirmation by a majority of voters that they approved of the party’s platform and legislative agenda. Maybe they had won those important independent voters and non-voters, those who either change their loyalties based on results (getting things done) or those who hate the system.
Moroccans I have talked to for the last three years often, not always, convey a sense of that indifference about politics. The responses are varied: “We are subjects in a kingdom. Politics does not concern me.” “No matter who wins, nothing will change.” “The parties do not represent me or my concerns.” Fair enough but as we say in America: Elections have consequences. What would the Middle East region look like had AL Gore won the election in 2000? Better shape? Worse? I sense a greater level of engagement by many Moroccans this election. Voter turnout in the 2011 national election was 45%. In the 2015 regional and local elections it was 54%. An impressive jump. I expect it will be even slightly higher for this election. I sense excitement mixed with frustration in Moroccans: People were promised a lot in 2011. Someone better deliver.
All politics is local. Sometimes.
Moroccan elections are a national affair run by the Ministry of the Interior. US elections are run by the individual states. US presidential elections are mandated to be held the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. During presidential election years (held every four years in the US), voter turnout has been about 50-55%. Though my home state, Minnesota, has a very high voter turnout in presidential election years: 76%. US presidential elections always include other candidates running for state and local offices. Often, the top of the ballot (the presidential candidate) affects the candidates who are down ballot (lower-ranking offices, like governor, senator, representative, mayor, city council person, school board member). A strong candidate at the top can carry to victory a city council candidate from the same party. Presidential coat tails, we call the phenomenon. It is a unique part of the US electoral system: personality politics. Morocco’s political system tends to follow that of western European nations: the party platform is an important document and candidates pledge to follow the platform if they are elected.
By contrast, in the US, candidates can distance themselves from issues and party platforms that they personally oppose, or their constituents oppose. For instance, some democrats do not support global trade agreements that they perceive as threatening jobs in their districts. In 2016, numerous Republican officeholders (in Congress and at state-level) are refusing to publicly support Donald Trump because of his inflammatory rhetoric about Muslims, women, and communities of color. And Morocco, too, has its share of colorful politicians that use their personality to dominate local politics and grab headlines. The larger-than-life Hamid Chabat, seemingly, was synonymous with Fes. And vice-versa.
I remember observing US politics and elections during the 1980s and early 1990s. It was a world sprinkled with conservative Democrats and liberally Republicans. But as the politics of the US has become more polarized over the last 25 years, there are fewer of these so-called Blue Dog Democrats or Rockefeller Republicans. Hence, the work of Congress moves slowly. Very slowly. And therein is another similarity to Morocco: the work of the legislative branch moves slowly. Morocco’s current political system, inspired by Hassan II and which includes nearly 30 active parties, saw the benefit of many parties competing for support in the parliament and among the people. It reinforced his role as power broker and logjam breaker. The structure of society – with the monarchy as a foundation – needs to be protected and respected as politicians promise change and more change. As a non-Moroccan, it’s impressive to see this balancing act.
In the US, the power of special interest groups is considerable, including associations for retired people, gun advocates, and teachers, etc. Voices are heard during legislative debate if those voices have clout (money) and effective lobbying advocates. US presidential candidates from both parties work hard to gain the support of key special interest groups. Their support brings money (for the campaign organization, not for personal use) and grass roots advocacy in a nation of 324,000,000. It also means endless TV commercials during election season. United States campaign laws allow nearly unlimited personal and corporate donations to so-called political action committees (PACs). The official campaign organization of both candidates may use federal money for their campaigns. The 2012 presidential election campaign cost $2.3 billion (campaign expenditures and allied group expenditures). Most Americans agree that there is too much money in politics.
The Left is back.
Morocco’s political left seems to be undergoing a mini-resurgence. Most of the dedicated political leftists that I have met while in rural Morocco have been at middle-age or older; those who still look to the France of Francois Mitterrand with genuine admiration. It makes sense that a new generation is ready to advance a progressive leftist agenda: Many 20-somethings that I meet here remember the “crisis” in Europe (The Great Recession) and the many friends who either struggled to find a job, remain unemployed, or seek to migrate to Europe for more job opportunities. This is similar to Bernie Sander’s left flank assault on Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party nomination. Young voters under 30 were the foundation of his populist campaign. This week, the medina of Rabat is full of campaign rallies, with young people playing a leading role in these grass roots events. It will be important for the young to stay engaged in the system after the excitement of the election fades.
The JPD considers itself an Islamist party, working to build a more just society for a nation that is overwhelmingly Muslim. Religion is foundational. The embrace of religion is to be expected by the JPD, as well as other parties represented in parliament. But the party also embraces Moroccan nationalism, pride in Moroccan culture and acknowledgement of the diverse history of Morocco. It’s an important point to remember given the fate of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Bill Clinton’s 1992 unofficial campaign logo still holds true: It’s the economy, stupid!” Piousness partnered with job creation will win more votes. It seems nearly every party here understands this. Even Abdelillah Benkirane has stated, “We are a political party that has come from the Moroccan people…under the leadership of his majesty.”
In the US, the influence of religion is more subtle. Until it’s not. The so-called “religious right” has often played a prominent role in the election of republicans to the Presidency. The religious right, or Christian-right, is generally considered to be socially and politically conservative-minded groups and individuals. But while religion is an important component in the life of many American families, formal religious practice is in decline. In 2015, 89% of Americans said that they believe in God. But a quarter of the population does not currently identify with a formal established religion (Pew Center). As America diversifies in ethnic composition and religious identification, the influence of organized religion-based political activism will continue to decline.
Good luck Morocco, as you vote on Friday. It is a treasured civic duty and privilege. We don’t always like the outcome. But, there’s always next election. Perhaps Moroccans will see the vote this Friday as a referendum on JPD and a question will hover in their head similar to the question that then-Republican candidate Ronald Reagan posed to voters during the 1980 campaign: Are you better off than you were five years ago? Perhaps they’ll vote for change. A new direction. I’ll enjoy watching my Moroccan friends sort it all out.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent any institution or entity.
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