For the first time since the Islamist leaning Justice and Development Party (PJD) came to power in Morocco via national legislative elections four years ago, the country went to the polls in regional and communal elections on September 4. These are also the first local elections held after 2011 protests ushered in important constitutional reforms by the monarchy, which laid out the process by which national powers will be partially devolved to the regional and municipal level. According to the official results announced by the Minister of Interior, Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane’s PJD won 25.6 percent of the seats in regional councils, arriving first in five of the twelve regions of the country, in particular those of Casablanca, Rabat, and Fes. Its main rival, the Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), a liberal opposition party led by Mustapha Bakoury, came second with 19.4 percent of the seats. The Independence Party (Istiqlal), a conservative opposition party that occupies a preeminent place in the history of political movements in Moroccan history, secured only 17.5 percent of the seats.
At first glance, the results of the municipal elections appear to show a different picture, with the PAM gaining the first position with 21.1 percent of the votes and Istiqlal the second with 16.2 percent. The PJD came third with 15.9 percent. In reality, however, even at the municipal level the success of the PJD is evident. The Islamist party has obtained an absolute majority in such key cities as Casablanca, Tangier, Kenitra, Meknes, and, with much surprise, Fes, until now the bastion of the Istiqlal Party and its populist leader Hamid Chabat. The PJD has also obtained the majority of seats in the municipal councils of Rabat and Marrakesh.
The results of the elections can be read in many ways, and all are going to be subject to change when more data are released and a more accurate analysis can be performed. For now, one can safely make a few observations. The first derives from the fact that there has not been the massive voter abstention that some feared. The turnout Friday saw about 54 percent of the total electorate cast their vote, a percentage similar to that of the last local elections in 2009. While not particularly impressive, the turnout nonetheless shows that a majority of Moroccans still believe in the validity of the electoral process to provide them with avenues of participation in the governance of their country. The argument that reforms—both constitutional and economic—were merely a façade put up by the regime to forestall the 2011 street demands, thus causing a sense of fatigue and dissatisfaction among the population after four years, has been rejected.
In their electoral campaigns, the opposition parties’ attempt to paint the elections as a referendum on the national government’s Islamist rule and on their version of Islam, rather than a step towards institutionalizing decentralized authority and power, backfired. Benkirane and most of the PJD’s candidates were careful to eschew radical doctrinal positions and always put forward their vision of religion as a determinant of social customs and values, not of political rules and regulations. They presented themselves as loyal to the monarchy and to the existing political system in the name of ensuring stability, peace, and order. Most of the Islamist candidates waged their campaign under the slogans of fighting corruption and unemployment, not for the imposition of sharia rule. If these elections prove one result, it is that of the definitive “normalization” of Islamist governance in Morocco. One has only to compare the fears and the objections raised in 2011 when Benkirane was appointed Prime Minister with today’s general acceptance of the Islamist party’s position by the establishment and the populace at large to recognize the PJD’s acquired legitimacy.
The election results suggest a bipolar political landscape in Morocco. The communal results in particular show the Islamist PJD dominating the majority of urban centers and the secular PAM dominating the countryside. This bipolarity, both geographical and ideological, is evidenced also by the meager results of the other main political formations: the National Coalition of Independents (RNI) with 13 percent of the votes in the regional elections and the Popular Movement (MP) with 8.5 percent. Notable is the collapse of the leftist party the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP) with only 7 percent of the votes. Particularly painful for this leftist party, led by the combative Driss Lachgar, was the loss of its historical bastions of Rabat and Agadir. Only Istiqlal has held its ground, but it lacks the strength to assert itself as a third pole.
The PJD’s increase in popularity in the urban centers also shows the larger appeal that the Islamist party has acquired among the middle class. It demonstrates the PJD’s evolution toward further strengthening its adherence to the monarchy’s project, largely espoused by the Moroccan middle class, of slow and gradual progression toward economic and political reforms that widen the spaces for freedoms and participation without undermining order and stability.
These elections reveal the first steps in the direction of reforms as designed by the new constitution, which takes great care in creating a more decentralized political system closer to the citizens than the highly centralized and bureaucratic one in place so far. Islamists have shown their capacity to endure the difficulties of governing at the national level and their ability to expand their reach at the local level. Now they will have to prove their capacity to govern the regions and cities that they have won in these elections. If they succeed, their road to the next year’s national elections will be much easier—and much harder for the secular opposition. The latter will have to abandon its empty anti-Islamic slogans and define real, concrete programs that touch the interests and values of the wider population.
Karim Mezranis a Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, focusing on North Africa.