The Moroccan flag. Source: www.flagsonline.it
September 8th, 2021 marked the day of the general elections in Morocco (third nationwide after the 2011 change of constitution), with the legislative, regional and communal elections all being held in the same time.
Morocco is a constitutional monarchy where the king picks the prime minister from the party that won the most seats in parliament, who will then form a cabinet and submit it for the king’s approval. Moreover, the palace has the last say on appointments concerning key departments including the interior, foreign affairs and defense, while it also sets the economic agenda of the country, based on a commissioned development model that the new government will be asked to implement. As a result, the monarchy’s dominant role means political parties espouse similar platforms focusing on education, health, employment, and social welfare.
All this is set within the framework of the new constitution adopted in 2011, after decades of skirmishes over the separation of powers and the king’s role in the day-to-day running of the country. Drawn up in reaction to the February 20th Movement, the local version of the Arab Spring uprisings, the document moved the country closer to a system of constitutional monarchy, but did not alter the king’s central role. Therefore, regardless of who holds elected office, major decisions come from the palace, including during the coronavirus crisis.
Nonetheless, among concerns and skepticism regarding the possibility of change, people in Morocco cast their ballots on Wednesday amid an economic crisis deepened by the coronavirus pandemic and a sense of frustration over the lack of political reform promised a decade ago. About 18 million people were expected to vote in the pivotal legislative and regional elections, while following strict safety guidelines imposed due to COVID. Unemployment and distrust over the political system are among the key challenges political parties have to deal with.
Before the elections, candidates were campaigning on the streets in small groups and intensified their efforts on social media as the North African country grappled with a new wave of infections driven mainly by the Delta variant.
On Wednesday, voters chose the 395 deputies in the house of representatives and 678 seats in regional councils. Even though opinion polls are banned in Morocco near election time, a survey in February by the Moroccan Institute for Policy Analysis showed about 64 percent of people planned to abstain. Based on this, Sofiane Fares, one of four first-time candidates in Morocco’s elections who came of age during the Arab Spring and is now in his 30s, urged young people in the northwestern town of Sale to cast their vote. “They don’t believe in the election itself and all this theatre of the elections,” Fares told Al Jazeera. “They are tired of it, all the time they see the same people getting elected.”
Despite the above-mentioned survey, turnout in Wednesday elections improved to 50.3%, up from 43% in 2016, as both the parliamentary and the local elections were held on the same day.
In a statement detailing the general mood in which the 2021 general elections took place, the Ministry of Interior expressed satisfaction with the process, saying that voting happened under good and normal conditions. As such, over 100 international observers from 19 organizations monitored the elections in Morocco. As part of the broader pledge to ensure transparency, representatives from foreign diplomatic missions accredited in Morocco were also given the green light to observe the elections.
Following the elections, preliminary results showed that Morocco’s liberal RNI (National Rally of Independents/ Rassemblement national des indépendants) party won the most seats in the country’s parliamentary elections, while the co-ruling moderate PJD Islamists (Justice and Development Party/ Parti de la justice et du développement) suffered a crushing defeat. RNI, led by billionaire agriculture minister Aziz Akhannouch, took 97 of the 395-seat parliament. Another liberal party, PAM (Authenticity and Modernity Party/ Parti de l’authenticité et de la modernité), secured 82 seats and the conservative Istiqlal (Independence Party) took 78 seats.
The PJD, a coalition partner in the previous two governments, took only 12 seats after a count of 96% of all parliamentary seats on Thursday. In a statement on Wednesday, the PJD accused rivals of buying votes, without naming any or providing details. Despite having been the largest party since 2011, the PJD has failed to stop laws it opposes, including one to bolster the French language in education and another to allow cannabis for medical use. The PJD might move into the opposition after the elections, former PJD minister Lahcen Daoudi told reporters.
The results show a massive turnaround in fortunes as the RNI had won only 37 seats at the last election in 2016, while the PJD took 125. RNI ministers controlled the key economic portfolios of agriculture, finance, trade and tourism in the outgoing government.
New voting rules were expected to make it harder for bigger parties to win as many seats as before, which means the RNI will have to enter into coalition talks to form a government. The changes in the electoral system – whereby seats are granted based on the number of registered voters rather than the number of those who actually cast the ballot – might see the party lose its majority.
As Morocco closed its polling stations on Wednesday, The US embassy in Rabat sent out a message in which it congratulated the North African country “on successfully holding” its general elections. The embassy made the comments in a brief statement on Twitter, framing Morocco’s “successful” general elections as an expression of the country’s democratic commitments. Noting the strong US-Morocco ties, the embassy added, “Our shared commitment to democratic processes strengthens our 200-year partnership.”