Moroccan Roulette: What Happens if You Hold an Election and Nobody Comes?

August 24, 2007

Morocco’s political elite—and Washington’s—are both eagerly anticipating the country’s Sept. 7 parliamentary balloting, which promises to be the freest and fairest in the history of this North African monarchy. The Bush administration loves to highlight Morocco’s political progress as a bright spot in an otherwise unrepentantly autocratic Middle East—and Morocco’s young king is basking in the glow. Next month’s election will be a multifaceted test. Among other things, it will gauge the popularity of Morocco’s Islamist Party of Justice and Development and reveal whether top-down reforms, emanating from a centralized monarchy, can produce meaningful democratization. The burning question, though, is how many Moroccans will even bother to vote. What if you build a democracy and nobody comes?

These elections are the latest step in a gradual process launched by King Mohammed VI after he ascended the throne in 1999. Since then, he has loosened press controls, opened registration for political parties, and even launched an Equity and Reconciliation Commission to examine human-rights abuses during the regime of his father, Hassan II. In return, President Bush has lavished attention on the North African country: sending old diplomatic hand Margaret Tutweiler and Harvard chum Tom Riley as ambassadors, signing a free-trade agreement that gave Moroccan farmers coveted access to U.S. markets, and even bending the rules of the Millennium Challenge Account so that Morocco might qualify for extra foreign aid. Even with Iraq sucking up a huge portion of America’s foreign-aid budget, Morocco’s economic assistance has increased by more than 300 percent since 2004.

For American policy-makers keen to encourage democracy without risking Islamist takeovers, Morocco is an unusually attractive model. Mohammed VI is widely popular, and he uses the D-word with abandon. But he clearly controls the pace and nature of political change, keeping a firm hand on the rudder to prevent any messy unpredictability arising from this presumed transition to democracy. Morocco also boasts what is arguably the most moderate—at least on its face—Islamist party in the Arab world, one that consciously models itself on Europe’s Christian Democrats and the pro-European Union Justice and Development Party of Turkey. There are hard questions to be asked about the sincerity of the PJD’s commitment to pluralism—but if Islamism and democracy can ever be proved compatible, it might well be in Morocco.

Furthermore, Morocco boasts a more conducive climate for democratization than perhaps any other Arab country. Over the last several years, major social reforms have helped cultivate a more liberal culture there—notably an overhaul of the family code that enhances women’s rights in marriage, divorce, and citizenship; and an agreement among political parties to reserve slots on a special national parliamentary ballot for women. Morocco also has a history of peaceful pluralism so firm that the population still includes several thousand Jews, who enjoy genuine freedom of worship and close ties to Israel. It also generally takes a relatively mellow approach to Islam, wherein veiled women and those wearing tank tops dine comfortably together in the many sidewalk cafes of the capital.

So why, then, wouldn’t Moroccans be lining up at the polls? In fact, voter turnout has been trending downward in every election since the democratization push began in 2002; even in that year’s landmark parliamentary race, just more than half of registered voters turned out—and 17 percent of those reportedly cast blank protest ballots. Moroccan officials express a near-universal concern that voters will show up this time in embarrassingly small numbers. The government is so concerned about citizen participation that it launched a nationwide effort to sign up new voters—but the campaign achieved barely half its goal of 3 million new registrants. About 79 percent of the eligible population is now signed up and able, in principle, to vote.

There’s a good reason why Moroccan citizens keep their distance from their political system. Complicated electoral laws ensure that parliamentary seats are fairly evenly distributed, regardless of who wins the largest share of the national vote, and parliamentary powers are so overshadowed by the king’s own legislative authority that most members of parliament (with the notable exception of the Islamist opposition) don’t even bother to show up when the body is in session. Instead, some use their parliamentary status and the legal immunity it grants them to advance their own narrow interests and sometimes to cover criminal activity. In this environment, the most rational Moroccan voters may well be those who give their ballot endorsements in direct exchange for the cash or food some candidates all but openly offer.

Ultimately, despite its progress, Moroccan democracy remains a shadow game: Democratic institutions have little substantive authority, and citizens’ preferences, as expressed at the ballot box, rarely have much impact on government policy. The citizen alienation that results threatens to undermine the credibility of the nascent democratic process.

There are forces in Morocco ready and eager to take advantage of the voters’ increasing disaffection. In addition to the Islamist party that is running for parliament, another Islamist group, the banned Justice and Charity Association, labels the elections useless and demands an end to the monarchy. Even worse, homegrown Islamist terrorism has increased, notwithstanding the efforts of Morocco’s efficient domestic security services, flush with U.S. funding and training. The 2004 Madrid train bombings, almost certainly carried out by Moroccans, are perhaps the most notorious example, but in 2007 alone three Moroccan suicide bombers have detonated themselves in the country’s tourist-filled cities, including one on Aug. 13.

The Moroccan business elite, currently enjoying a surge of investment in tourism and real estate and benefiting from free-trade pacts with the European Union and the United States, are clearly worried that extremists will benefit from the public’s disaffection. A group of Casablanca’s most distinguished entrepreneurs founded a new nonprofit, 2007 Daba, dedicated to persuading Moroccans to vote. Their slick voter guides, posters, and TV ads are everywhere. For their part, government officials worry about attacks on polling stations, but worry too that a police presence visible enough to deter suicide bombers will likely intimidate voters. So, they must choose between high security and high voter turnout.

Fundamentally, though, the biggest decisions rest with the king. To engage voters he will have to strengthen parliament and the mainstream political parties, giving them a real capacity to act on voters’ concerns and reducing his own power in the process. If he chooses not to fortify parliament, he faces the risk that voters may abandon their faith in the democratic process and turn to more dangerous and destabilizing alternatives. If the Islamist PJD does as well in the elections as some expect, King Mohammed will also have to choose between asking his most threatening opposition to form a government—an unprecedented move for a major Arab country—and delegitimizing democracy by excluding them from power.

The king’s difficult choices suggest there are limits to Washington’s preferred strategy for democratic progress in the Arab world: a top-down, gradual process guided by a reliably friendly but reform-minded autocrat. Erecting the forms of democracy without much substance, a balance now well-developed in Morocco, may not ultimately win the loyalty of Arab citizens. And if democratic forms lose legitimacy, then tightly managed liberalization, far from ensuring stability in a dangerous environment, may end up pushing Arab societies away from peaceful politics altogether and further into the arms of extremists. That’s a kind of voting with one’s feet that we should work to avoid.