Morocco’s moderate Islamist party suffered heavy losses in parliamentary elections on Wednesday, a painful setback in one of the last countries where Islamists had come to power after the Arab Spring protests.
Moroccans cast their vote in legislative, municipal and regional races, the first such vote in the country since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Despite turnout figures showing that nearly half of Moroccans did not vote, the results were clear: the Justice and Development Party, the moderate Islamists known as the PJD, who have been in power since 2011, were with heavy losses up and down – possibly enough to lose control of Parliament.
With more than half the votes counted, the winners were the National Rally of Independents (with 97 seats, according to the Interior Ministry) and the conservative Istiqlal party, both of which are seen as closely linked to the monarchy. The PJD had 12, according to early results.
However, a changing of the guard is unlikely to herald major policy shifts in a country where the royal palace has long been in command. Although Morocco is officially a constitutional monarchy, the parliament does not have the power to overturn the will of Mohammed VI, said Saloua Zerhouni, a political science professor in the capital Rabat.
“The monarchy will continue to control political parties, undermine the powers of government and parliament and position itself as the only effective political institution,” Ms Zerhouni said.
But the result did show one thing: the diminishing space Islamists are now finding for themselves in the Middle East and North Africa.
After the pro-democracy protests of the Arab Spring in 2011, many Islamist parties were allowed to participate in elections, in some cases for the first time. They captured parliamentary seats in some countries and took power in others, including Morocco, where revisions by Mohammed VI paved the way for the PJD to form a governing coalition.
But eventually the tide turned against the Islamists. In 2013, a coup in Egypt overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood, leading to the current dictatorship. This year, Tunisian President Kais Saied suspended the parliament, controlled by moderate Islamists, in what many countries describe as a coup.
In Morocco, moderate Islamists made little progress on their own agenda, with key ministries such as foreign affairs and industry being controlled by other parties. When the king of Morocco decided last year to strike a deal with Israel to normalize relations, Islamists could do nothing to stop a move they vehemently opposed.
“Most Moroccans across the country, regardless of their education level, have a pretty healthy dose of political skepticism” and saw that the Islamists had little real power, said Vish Sakthivel, a postdoctoral associate in Middle Eastern Studies at Yale University.
And as the pandemic swept through Morocco, the royal palace was seen as the main driver of emergency relief programs.
“Most of the decisions aimed at alleviating the social and economic effects of the pandemic were associated with the central power, the monarchy,” Ms Zerhouni said. “While political parties and parliament were presented as inactive and awaiting directives from the king.”
The distrust was previously reflected in low poll numbers, including in the last three elections, with turnout averaging just 42 percent. And this time, pandemic restrictions forced most campaigns online, alienating many voters without internet access.
In March, Morocco revised its electoral laws, making it more difficult for any party to have a significant lead in terms of seats. The leading party will now have to form a coalition government in which several parties with different ideologies come together.
For many, the moves have reduced the parties’ power to rule and strengthened the king’s hand — and led some not to vote at all on Wednesday.
“The space of expression available to citizens to voice their grievances has been reduced so much that the only way today to show discontent without repercussions is to abstain from voting because the regime pays attention to the participation rate,” it said. Amine Zary, 51, who works in the tourism industry in Casablanca, did not vote.
On the streets of Morocco, many pointed out that the elections had changed little in the past decade.
Cases of self-immolation protests continue to make the news, a reminder of the one that sparked the initial unrest of the Arab Spring after a fruit seller set himself on fire in Tunisia in 2010. Beatings by police officers still occur regularly. A Moroccan protest movement was cracked down in 2017. And the government has targeted journalists who have spoken out against oppression.
“I literally have a knot in my stomach because I have a déjà vu,” said Mouna Afassi, 29, an entrepreneur in Rabat who voted on Wednesday. “I recognize this feeling of hope all too well. For five years, they allow us to find the strength to believe it before we take another blow.”
She added: “I don’t want to think about leaving Morocco to give my daughter the life I dream of for her.”
The challenges were evident on a recent Saturday when, despite the restrictions on campaigning due to the pandemic, volunteers searched a residential area in Rabat. Members of the Democratic Left Federation, a multi-party coalition, gathered in a small office to bolster their vote-gathering efforts.
“You have to show the citizens that they are like you,” Nidal Oukacha, 27, told one of the volunteers. “We have to tell the people that Morocco can still change.”
But as the team spread through the district by bike, getting the message across was easier said than done. Many people were not at home and many who were had already made up their minds. Some potential voters listened to the investigators, but it was not clear whether they would eventually vote.
Leila Idrissi, 59, a physiotherapist and politician from the nationalist Independence Party, said Moroccans should not give up voting even if they are frustrated by political stagnation.
“Many promises have not been fulfilled, especially in the past eight years,” she said. “I tell young people that if they don’t vote, they let people who are not competent or people with bad intentions decide for them. They must have their future in their hands.”