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Morocco’s Election Winners Will Struggle to Form Government

An election is held. The party with the most seats scurries to find
coalition partners. What is unusual is the setting: Morocco. The North
African country is rapidly developing one of the strongest democratic
traditions in the Muslim world.

American strategists long have said that such democratic successes might help peace come to the infamously conflict-torn region.

If
Morocco’s ruling Justice and Development Party (PJD) can form a new
government coalition, it will be the first time an elected party has
ruled the nation for two consecutive terms. The PJD, generally
considered a moderate Islamist party, took a plurality of the seats in
last week’s parliamentary elections.

Of 395 seats at
stake, the PJD claimed 125 seats – up from 107 seats in the 2011
elections. The total is far short of the 198 seats needed to form a
government. The Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM), generally allied
with King Mohammed VI, came in second, winning 102 seats – nearly twice
as many as it had won in the last elections. Istiqlal, Morocco’s oldest
party, won 46 seats. In fourth place, the classically liberal National
Rally of Independent (RNI) won 37 seats. Eight minor parties will the
rest of the posts.

The elections marked the first time
that an Arab Islamist party faced the voters and won re-election. While
Abdelilah Benkirane will retain the prime ministership, it is unclear
what political parties will join the PJD to form a majority in
parliament.

For Morocco, the process may be more
important than the outcome. Michael Rubin, a Middle East scholar at the
American Enterprise Institute, believes the elections played a vital
role in the growth of democracy in the Middle East and North Africa.

“Morocco
is a beacon of democratic hope in the region” Rubin said. “In Tunisia,
democracy is an experiment. In Morocco, democracy is a consolidated
system. Morocco has a system that works. American policy wonks may have
preferred that a liberal party had won the elections rather than the
Islamist PJD. However, the continued role of the king should temper that
concern.”

Close observers say that since winning its first election in 2011, the PJD has come to favor politics over ideology.

“In their
transformation over the last decade, political expediency is as, if not
more, important than ideology,” said Vish Sakthivel, an expert in North
African politics at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “Whether the
PJD is deep down, a totalitarian vanguard, becomes moot.”

“In
the short-term, I think PJD will try to form governments with Istiqlal
which came in third place or one of the smaller parties,” said Mokhtar
Benabdallaoui, a researcher on Islamist movements in Casablanca.
“Istiqlal has ruled in coalition with PJD in the past and may be open to
such an arrangement in the next government. “What is unclear how long
such an arrangement could last,”

Morocco’s other large
parties have already said they will not join with the PJD. The PAM came
in second in the 2016 parliamentary elections. PAM’s secretary general,
Ilyas El-Omari, told AMI that his party was “against the PJD’s views and
all forms of extremism,” he said.

The classically
liberal RNI National Rally of Independents (RNI) party reportedly is
also unlikely to form a government with the PJD.

“Working
with the PJD gave us the experience of being in government, but the
differences between us are vast,” said Salaheddine Mezouar, who led the
RNI during the elections and is Morocco’s foreign minister.

Mezouar
is a former international basketball player and spoke to AMI hours
after the polls closed. However, a post-election alliance between RNI
and PJD is no slam dunk.

“The PJD’s project is about
the international Muslim community, and our project is about the
individual rights and individual liberty,” he said. “The real Islam is
the relationship between the person and God with no one in between.”

Rubin
(of the American Enterprise Institute) believes the difficulty PJD
faces in forming a government speaks to the overall health of Morocco’s
democracy:

“I think it is healthy if the PJD struggles
to form a government. In the United States, we sometimes forget how
important a vibrant opposition is to a healthy democracy. The continued
role of the king is also an important part of the democratic process as
he can ensure the overall stability of the country.”

On
the other hand, some critics have expressed concern that election
turnout, at 43 percent of registered voters (and just 23 percent of the
28 million eligible voters), fell slightly short of the already-low 45
percent turnout in 2011.

Morocco was the first country
to recognize America after its independence from Britain. Morocco has
been a key ally of the United States in counter-terrorism efforts in the
Middle East and North Africa.

Last week’s elections
were only the second in the Morocco’s history since King Mohammed VI
enacted democratic reforms in response to the Arab Spring protests in
2011.

“In the short-term, I think PJD will
try to form governments with Istiqlal or one of the smaller parties.
What is unclear how long such an arrangement could last,” said Mokhtar
Benabdallaoui a researcher on Islamist movements in Casablanca. Rubin
believes the difficulty that PJD faces in forming a government speaks to
the overall health of Morocco’s democracy “I think it is healthy if the
PJD struggles to form a government and that PAM goes into opposition.
In the United States, we sometimes forget how important a vibrant
opposition is to a healthy democracy” Rubin said.

Last
week’s elections were only the second in the Morocco’s history since
King Mohammed VI enacted democratic reforms in response to the Arab
Spring protests in 2011.

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