Moroccans are voting on Wednesday, September 8, in the legislative, regional and municipal elections. Both the pandemic and the boycott by many sections of society and political parties are likely to have an impact on the third election since the adoption of the 2011 constitution. The opposition has claimed that democracy is the biggest absentee in the process.
Of the 25.2 million Moroccan citizens who are of legal voting age (18 years), over 17.5 million citizens registered in the electoral lists and are eligible to vote. The authorities have spent a lot of time and effort to urge people to vote but the campaigns of political parties were lackluster, due to the lack of democratic space and freedom, and the severe social effects of the pandemic.
A new system has been implemented in this election whereby seats will be allotted on the basis of votes cast as a percentage of the total number of registered voters. This is likely to work to the disadvantage of the ruling Justice and Development Party and lead to a more fractured result.
A history of promises betrayed
In 2011, Morocco witnessed its own version of the Arab Spring, embodied by the February 20 Movement, which called for a fight against corruption, the separation of powers, and the establishment of a democratic system, starting with the constitution and eventually leading to the construction and development of independent institutions.
Due to popular pressure, the Moroccan monarch Mohammed VI announced reforms, including to the constitution, which he promised would be democratic.
However, the protest movement rejected both the proposals in the new constitution and the methodology by which it was approved. Key sections of the protest movement pointed out that the new constitution did not “respond to the aspirations of the people, especially in establishing democracy and the separation of powers.” In the new document, the king retained his power over the legislative, governmental and judicial institutions. Moroccan laws grant enormous power and influence to governors and officials who report directly to the Ministry of the Interior and the king. Meanwhile, those who have been elected remain restricted and constrained and do not have noticeable influence, analysts have pointed out.
The participation rate in the 2016 legislative elections was a mere 43%. The same year, authorities cracked down on the Rif Movement which began when Mohsen Fikri, a fish vendor, was crushed to death in a garbage truck. The movement demanded an end to militarization of the Rif region and its development. However, a large number of leaders and protesters were arrested and some were sentenced to long terms in jail. These include Nasser Zefzafi and Nabil Ahamjik, who received 20-year jail terms. Many campaigns have been launched in Morocco and other parts of the world, calling for their release.
The Moroccan state is hoping to use this year’s election to obtain endorsement for the ‘New Development Model,’ which was designed by a committee appointed by the king and chaired by the ambassador to France and former minister of interior Chakib Benmoussa.
Many sections of society believe that the current political systems and institutions do not respond to their aspirations. There is a great deal of unhappiness about the rampant corruption, and the austerity measures and neoliberal policies adopted by the state, such as retreating from the public sector and replacing it with contractors. The private education sector has been encouraged amid the decline in public school indicators. Similarly, the pandemic has also exposed the weakness of the health system.
The human rights movement in the country has been flagging the dangerous decline in democratic freedoms, especially the rising attack on militants and opposition movements. The Moroccan Association for Human Rights, for instance, has been facing government pressure for more than 6 years, preventing it from renewing or establishing branches. Many social movements, especially those of contracted professors, students and the unemployed, have been subjected to repression and prevented from protesting.
Many media outlets have been forced to stop publishing, including the newspaper Akhbar Al-Youm which had become a thorn in the side of influential circles of the Moroccan state. Its director, journalist Taoufik Bouachrine, was arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison in a case related to human trafficking. These accusations were rejected by the human rights movement.
Similarly, journalist Suleiman Raissouni, editor-in-chief of the newspaper, was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison in a case related to “indecent assault and detention.” These are charges that Raissouni has consistently denied, and human rights organizations term his trial a retaliation for his journalistic work and strong editorials in Akhbar Al Youm. Another journalist who was persecuted was Omar Radi who was arrested in a case relating to allegations of rape, which he has denied. He is now serving a six-year prison sentence.
Observers believe that trials on sexual and moral issues have become the main tool of the Moroccan state in cracking down on independent journalists and opponents.
Recently, the Pegasus Project, published by media organizations across the world, revealed that Moroccan authorities were spying on thousands of citizens and foreigners using the Pegasus spyware developed by the Israeli company NSO. The Moroccan authorities denied these allegations and claimed it was aimed at tarnishing the image of the country.
The current elections also come in the aftermath of the normalization of ties with Israel. The agreement, signed by Prime Minister Saad Eddine El Othmani of the Justice and Development Party, was extremely unpopular and might affect the electoral prospects of the government which had time and again pledged support to the Palestinian cause.
As far as the election process is concerned, the programs of the 31 political parties that are taking part seem similar. All of them have made rosy promises without indicating how they will implement them.
The opposition Democratic Way has boycotted the elections, saying that the process will be used by authorities to “promote fake democracy and false promises, and convince people to participate in voting to endorse a pre-determined political map.”
The leftist political organization highlighted, in its appeal to the Moroccan people, that the colors and symbols [of parties] are many, “but the program is one, and it is predetermined by Dar al-Makhzen [the monarchy and its circles] and the global imperialist institutions.”
The political organization led by Mustafa Brahma also said that “the Democratic Way decided to boycott these elections because they are held on the basis of the 2011 constitution, which enshrines tyranny and absolute individual rule, centralizes power in the hands of the king and strips the elected institutions of its powers.” It added that the elections aim to “polish the image of the Makhzen and give legitimacy to the policies of exploitation, oppression, marginalization and subordination to serve the interests of the big bourgeoisie, the big landowners and the Makhzen mafia in particular.” It also takes place in an atmosphere “characterized by the continuous suppression of all groups and militant forces.”
The Democratic Way organized several campaigns to highlight its position on the elections in cities throughout Morocco, but the security authorities confronted its activists with repression and arrests, the party said through its official media platforms.
The International Peoples’ Assembly, a platform of social movements and organizations, condemned the arrest of political activists in Morocco and called for global support for the democratic struggles of the Moroccan people.
The Islamic Justice and Charity Group described the electoral process as “absurd,” and its Deputy Secretary-General, Fathullah Arslan, said in a video that “the organization cannot participate in it.” He added, “It is necessary in elections to have parties competing for power to implement their programs.” As for us, we are far from this reality, and the competition is only for the service of the ruler,” explaining that “governments in Morocco do not rule.”
Shortly before the elections, the Democratic Left Federation, an alliance of three democratic leftist parties that advocated a parliamentary monarchy, was divided. This resulted in the United Socialist Party entering the election with its own list, led by Nabila Mounib.
Despite the democratic discourse promoted by these leftist parties, their chances of achieving positive results remain slim, compared to parties close to the state, especially the National Rally of Independents led by billionaire Aziz Akhannouch, and the Independence Party led by Nizar Baraka.