Democratic Progress for Morocco, but on King’s Terms

Morocco's new Prime Minister Saadeddine el-Othmani attends a press conference at his party's headquarters. Rabat, Morocco, March 21, 2017. (Abdeljalil Bounhar/Associated Press)

The news that Morocco’s new Prime Minister Saadeddine el-Othmani has been able to form a governing coalition after more than five months of impasse will come as a great relief to proponents of democracy in Morocco. Othmani, who was chosen by King Mohammed VI to lead coalition talks after his predecessor Abdelilah Benkirane was sacked two weeks ago, has finally persuaded his moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) to join forces with the left-wing Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP). The new 240-seat coalition also includes the National Rally of Independents (RNI), the Constitutional Union, the Popular Movement, which enjoys the support of Amazigh-speaking communities, and the left-leaning Party of Progress and Socialism (PPS).

The formation of a new coalition brings to an end uncertainty which began when the PJD won the most seats in parliamentary elections in October 2016 but fell short of an outright majority. Benkirane, the Moroccan prime minister since 2011, struggled to find enough partners from among the smaller parties. The impasse followed PJD’s consistent refusal to work with the USFP, which is led by militant Driss Lachgar, while the RNI, which came fourth with 37 seats in the 2016 elections and expressed an interest in working with the PJD, refused to form a coalition with another party, Istiqlal.

In the end it appears Mohammed VI was fed up with the nearly six months of horse trading, which had caused serious administrative delays in the North African kingdom, including around the passing of the 2017 finance bill and the legislation to allow Morocco to rejoin the African Union after the organization allowed it earlier this year. “On the surface it looked like things were sort of ticking along normally” journalist Julie Chaudier told me, “but there were a number of big decisions which were seriously delayed. There has been no new policy direction for nearly half a year.”

The king reportedly gave Othmani just two weeks to sort out the crisis; nevertheless, for some observers the breakthrough came surprisingly fast. Indications had been that so long as the PJD was in charge there would be an irresolvable blockage, with RNI leader Aziz Akhannouch, a businessman with strong links to the royal palace, refusing to work with Istiqlal and seemingly able to dictate the terms of the coalition. The Authenticity and Modernity Party, which came second in the vote, is a nationalist movement with strong links to the king. It had steadfastly refused to join a PJD-led coalition from the start, leaving Benkirane with little room to maneuver. The PJD’s traditional allies such as the PPS performed worse than expected in the 2016 vote and were unable to tip the balance of power in its favor.

However, the volte-face of the PJD in agreeing to work with the USFP suggests that the impasse was more to do with the position and views of the former leader than the party itself. “El-Othmani is not a populist like Benkirane, he is more conciliatory,” Issandr el-Amrani, project director for North Africa with the International Crisis Group, told me. “Although Benkirane previously did have the support of the whole PJD, it seems they have come to realize that he had become an obstacle because he is not accepted by the royal palace.”

There have been repeated suggestions in the press that Benkirane’s personal popularity has been perceived as a threat to the king, who bowed to public pressure in the wake of the Arab Spring protests in 2011 to allow the democratic reforms that led to the first PJD-led government. The king appears to have been keen to show he is supportive of democracy in Morocco—he followed the rules of the country’s new Constitution in picking a successor to Benkirane—but the broader coalition which has emerged post-Benkirane will also count in his favor. “This bigger coalition will dilute the influence of the PJD, which will not be able to hold as many ministerial posts as it hoped” argues Amrani. “But the history of the PJD is one of pragmatism and will likely conclude that they lost this battle but they will continue on to win the next one.”

How effective the new coalition is will now depend on the skills of Othmani, a former psychiatrist and president of the PJD’s national council, who will name his ministers in the coming days. He will be forced to mediate possible ideological differences between the PJD’s more conservative worldview and the more socially progressive parties such as the USFP and RNI. Regardless, the real lesson from the past two weeks of Moroccan democracy is that it is not the politicians who will ultimately decide the future direction of the country, but Mohammed VI.

Celeste Hicks is a freelance journalist and author of Africa’s New Oil. Follow @ChadCeleste