Morocco: Local Elections Bring Victory to Vote-Buyers and a Royal Friend

Maâti Monjib
Maâti Monjib Professor of African Studies and Political History at the University of Rabat

June 19, 2009

Morocco underwent local elections last Friday, June 12. The leading newspaper Almassae qualified the victory of the Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM), founded only some months ago by Fouad El Himma, former Deputy Minister of Interior and close friend to Mohammed VI as a “sweeping electoral tsunami.” PAM received 21.5% of the seats and about 18% of the votes. Istiqlal, the Prime Minister’s party and the country’s oldest, which led the struggle for independence in the 1940s and 1950s, won 19% of the seats. The moderate Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD) came in sixth with 5.5%.

What these statistics do not show, however, is that PJD proved once again to be the strongest and most structured party in the cities. It came in first with 16 % of the seats in towns of 35,000 inhabitants or more. This result merits attention because in such urban constituencies, the citizens’ vote tends to be less tied to tribal and clientelist concerns than in rural areas. Cities thus provide a clearer bellwether of popular political preferences.

When one scrutinizes the sociological and behavioral dimensions of the vote in the countryside and small towns, the true winner is money. I asked Ahmed, an election official in Ben Slimane, a town of 50,000 inhabitants near Casablanca, how the election transpired in his neighborhood. He answered, “There was no violence, but generally the poor voted for cash. An individual gets an average of 200 dirhams ($25) for his or her vote. Those who bargain, or come again to see the candidate, can get more. Sometimes the candidate does not remember who he gave money to, so he can offer people the same amount twice.” Corruption appeared widespread; courts are now considering hundreds of official complaints of bribery, local officials giving preferential treatment to certain candidates, and voter and candidate intimidation.

Turnout is a very important political issue in the country. After record-low voter participation in 2007’s parliamentary elections, Mohammed VI is keen to show that Moroccans are still supporting his regime through vibrant participation. According to the Ministry of the Interior, the voter turnout was 52%. The Minister of Communications, who serves as the government’s spokesman, had given a much lower figure. So, who to believe? Curiously, the Ministry of the Interior calculated its turnout figure by claiming that 13.3 million people were registered on the voting lists, far fewer than the number registered for the 2007 elections (15.5 million). The lower number of registered voters is especially suspicious given that Moroccans are usually more motivated to participate in local elections than legislative ones because the Parliament has no real power and its work has less impact on their daily life than the town hall does. One can suspect some some manipulation of the voter rolls to raise turnout figures. Even if the numbers are correct, the figure of 52% can be misleading, as Morocco’s voting-age population is more than 20 million. A majority of Morocco’s adult citizens, then, are still uninterested in electoral participation.

One new positive development did come out of the local elections: more than 3000 women will join the ranks of municipal councils. This outcome was the result of a new rule that set a 12% quota for women, giving parties incentive to add women candidates to their lists.

The “sweeping” triumph of a brand-new party, PAM, has been analyzed by some local media outlets as the penultimate step before the appointment of its leader, El Himma, as prime minister after the next legislative elections, due in 2012. If this happens, it will be a serious setback to the process of political reform. The regime of King Hassan II created and supported state parties in 1963, 1977, and 1982 in order to avoid having genuinely independent party leaders at the head of the government – PAM, headed by a confidante of the king, could end up filling this role for Mohammed VI.

Such a development will not aid the regime’s goal of enhancing electoral participation, and will pose a huge challenge to the legitimacy of Mohammed VI’s “New Era” regime. The Makhzen, or royal establishment, can hold elections, but it needs to make them politically meaningful if it wants people to believe that the royal promises of democratic reform are genuine, not merely for show.