Elections in Morocco and the Boycott Option

On September 4th Morocco will hold municipal elections, after having postponed them as a response to the political parties’ demand, and due to tremendous reluctance among citizens to register as voters. As elections approach, Moroccan society has been divided into two major groups. One that advocates participation in the elections, and another group that is in favor of boycotting the elections. As always in Morocco during the lead-up to elections, debate has been rampant on Facebook and on other social media.

Generally speaking, elections are of great significance in any democratic country. Democracy is premised on all people having the same rights and having the country ruled by the people, as Abraham Lincoln once said, “Of the people, by the people and for the people.” Elections are important because the people participate to choose their representatives, who make decisions on behalf of their electors. It is a chance for the citizen to be heard, to hold elected officials accountable for their decisions and to have a say in important issues that affect their community. Therefore, on Election Day, every vote matters.  However, this applies only in truly democratic countries. Is Morocco a genuinely democratic country? Does Morocco have elected officials who have genuine influence on national and international policy?  Can Moroccans hold the government accountable for its decisions? The answer to all these questions is unfortunately, unequivocally: NO!

True, Morocco holds elections, but we’re all well aware they are merely for show. Moroccans consistently elect a government that only follows the orders of the King and his companions or what is known as the “shadow government”.

Abdelilah Benkirane, the current head of government, said in Without Frontiers “Bela Hodod”, an Arab live television talk show broadcasted by Aljazeera TV on May 13th, 2015:

His Majesty the King is the one who rules Morocco; he is the head of state, commander of the faithful, and the heads of the judiciary and the armed forces. He is the head of everything and this is what we have in the constitution.

Moroccans cannot hold the king accountable for his actions because he is protected by the constitution. Therefore, we can only assume that elections are just a façade that is meant to suggest to the international community that Morocco is a democratic country, and that Moroccans are free to choose their government officials. However, the king is the head of almost all the main governmental branches, and he can dismiss cabinet ministers at any time he thinks it is appropriate and replace them with the ones that please him, causing a government reshuffle; in fact, this has happened many times already. Thus, why not skip the elections and move straight to allowing the shadow government to impose its will?! As long as the Moroccan constitution makes the king the head of state and grants him ultimate control over most governmental branches, denying real power to elected officials, there is no hope for giving the act of voting any real significance. If Morocco were to become a true democracy, His Majesty would remain merely a symbolic leader of the country, as is the case in real parliamentary monarchies all over the world.

The Justice and Development Party (PJD) won the parliamentary elections of 2011. They entered the hopeless political game adopting the Moroccan street’s slogan during the uprisings “to fight corruption and tyranny.” They hoped to do as much and to make a tangible change in the Moroccan political arena. However, they were faced by the harsh reality that given current circumstances, it is impossible to fight corruption in Morocco. When they failed miserably in their central mission, the head of the government (and head of the PJD), Abdelilah Benkirane, said: “Let bygones be bygones;” and the party has since adopted policies which favor the ruling elite and the rich while hammering the masses with unpopular decisions.

If this is the case for choosing officials in government, how is it different from the upcoming municipal and regional elections? And why Moroccans should or should not vote?

Next week, municipal and regional elections will be held all over Morocco. During these elections, Moroccans will elect their representatives who will be responsible for overseeing local matters. It is a fact that Moroccans are not usually as motivated to participate in parliamentary elections as they are when it comes to local ones because the parliament has no real power and it has less impact on their daily life than the municipalities do. Yet, the municipal elections are notorious for widespread breaches and violations of proper electoral procedures ranging from manipulation of results to vote purchasing, especially in the countryside where money is king. Due to high illiteracy rates, a general lack of political awareness, and poverty among Moroccan citizens, corruption is widespread; courts have been considering hundreds of official complaints of bribery, local officials giving preferential treatment to certain candidates, and voter and candidate intimidation. That is no longer a secret; even in the king’s speech on August 20th, he called on citizens not to sell their votes and rather to vote for the most deserving qualified candidates. All this calls into question the feasibility of these elections.

Those who call for participation in the elections believe that choosing not to vote would give corrupt candidates a greater chance of winning. Therefore, they argue, all Moroccans should vote and choose representatives who would serve the common good. This argument may appeal to many Moroccans; especially that it has been used by many political parties. However, those who advocate the boycott seem to have much stronger arguments. Given the current political circumstances, where corruption and tyranny are rife, it is almost impossible to achieve real change. The chain of command itself prevents it. For example, the municipality cannot execute most sensitive decisions unless they get the approval of higher authorities like the governor of the region, who is subject to the ministry of interior, who is ultimately subject to the King. On top of that, when an honest representative tries to fight corruption and enact reforms, they get stuck facing the complexity of corruption, and eventually end up following the commands of their superiors in the ministry of interior. Thus, their positive impact would be limited at best.

Further, another big issue that arises is why Moroccan authorities insist on citizen registration in voting lists and on issuing voting cards. Why not adopt national identity cards (CIN) that every single citizen in the age of voting has? The answer is, quite simply, because they know that the majority of Moroccans boycott the elections. Turnout is a very crucial factor to the legitimacy of elections. Thus, it would be a huge scandal to show to the world the real turnout rate and what proportion of the Moroccan population it represents. Also, it is always suspected that the authorities resort to manipulating and artificially inflating statistical rates of participation.

Dr. Maati Monjib, a Moroccan scholar and human rights activist, wrote an article in 2009 on the last municipal elections. He stated:

One can suspect 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.

It is noteworthy that the Democratic Way Party “Annahj Democraty”, a Moroccan leftist political party, and The Justice and Spirituality Organization (JSO), “Al Adl Wa Al Ihssan”, the biggest Islamic political faction in Morocco, have already announced that they are not participating in the elections.  Both political factions were the main components of the February 20th Movement that led the Arab Spring of 2011 in Morocco, and they agree that given the present constitution and political circumstances, elections are meaningless and will not bring any difference. The JSO issued its official statement on August 20th in which it announced not only the boycotting of the elections, but also explicitly incited all Moroccans to boycott.

Those who advocate the boycott believe that change comes from above, and that it is time for the regime to consider taking some bold actions, make real changes, and reform the political system. Corruption is like a chain hanging down from above and as long as the top is corrupt it will never allow any real reforms to take place. The current campaign led by government officials, party leaders, official media, and Moroccan celebrities shows that the regime fears the power of the boycott. They are certain that the boycott option is a very strong way of protesting against the current political organism and expressing distrust in the current political institutions and procedures.

Salah eddine Salmi is a freelance translator and journalist who is currently a Master’s student of Applied Linguistics at Ibn Zohr University- Agadir. Read other articles by Salah eddine.