‘In the spirit of continuity’ has been the unexpressed motto which could be applied to define the will of the new Moroccan monarch since his ascension to the throne in 1999. But what could have been a prudent ruse aimed at the enemies of change in order to develop the reforming thrust that drove the policy implemented during the last period of Hassan II’s reign, a king who in the 1990s tried to modernise his country in crucial issues such as human rights, the political participation of the opposition, and economic reform, seems, in contrast, to have been a constraint on the political evolution that twenty-first century Morocco is demanding.
The elections of September 2002 are included in this dynamics of continuity, which has so far been unable to build on the most positive legacy of the previous reign. The elections, which should have been the main objective of the first triennial on the throne and, as a result of an intense debate on the new Morocco under construction, should have attracted the participation of the citizens, became in contrast an expression of popular despondency, the discredited position of the institutions, and the parties’ lack of vigour.
A continuity, in short, of a good deal of the worst of the past. The electoral processes in Morocco had been marked throughout the reign of Hassan II by the stigma of corruption. Parties that were prefabricated in order to become a decisive force at specific moments, and manipulation of results to fulfil the requirements of the administration meant that for many years, the powers of the opposition denounced these processes due to their constant manipulation, commanded by the Home Affairs Minister, Driss Basri.
The paradox lies in the fact that this same historical opposition did nothing, and simply accepted the results, the parliaments, or the town councils that resulted from the falsifications. Even the last election of the previous reign, in November 1997, raised more than a few doubts, despite the fact that the interventionism of the administrative apparatus was more limited and that they were guided by the desire of the sovereign for the democratic opposition to form part of the government through as favourable a majority as possible.
No less paradoxical, is that for this purpose a certain dose of manipulation was even necessary, given that the political discredit had also extended its reach to the opposition, considered by majority opinion to be an integral part of the system. The end of this generalised apathy and the lending of prestige to public affairs and politics should have been the priority objectives of the new reign, and the first actions and speeches of the new monarch, including the dismissal of the Home Affairs Minister, seemed to be leading in this direction.
This should also have been the main objective of a government presided over by the socialist Abderrahmán Yusufi, made up by a heterogeneous mixture of seven parties of very disparate trends. But this would have involved government action with clearer and more audacious objectives than those first marked out when it swore its allegiance to Hassan II, in common synergy with a renewed crown which should have brought reform and regeneration. Neither the crown nor the government knew how to provide this energy, and in the meantime continuity took on in its worst guise, the status quo.
Many of the parties missed the opportunity for an overhaul in their congresses, as happened with the USFP in March 2001, when it opted for continuity by confirming Prime Minister Yusufi as leader of the party, which provoked a division instigated by the trade unionist Nubir Amaui. Other parties, forming a small minority, started a process of integration such as the process which gave rise to the Party of the Unified Socialist Left after the fusion of the OADP and several left-wing extra-parliamentary formations.
Other processes of convergence coordinated actions such as those organised by the PPS and the PSD, but which did not culminate in the creation of new parties. The great novelty was the appearance of thirteen new parties between April 2001 and July 2002, in the heat of the pre-election atmosphere, which further complicated the already fragmented Moroccan political panorama.
The achievement of the support of the political forces for a new electoral law was the first objective of the Home Affairs Minister, Driss Jettou, a man linked to the management of the royal heritage through the ONA. For the first time in Moroccan electoral history the law that was passed in April 2002 provides for an electoral proportional system based on the largest remainder.
Proportionality was an old cause for criticism of the opposition, contrary to the old uninominal one-round system which favoured dominance by the local party leaders and the use of money as a political weapon. It was estimated that the new method would allow the identification of the voter with a specific political option, allowing the strengthening of the party system. However, the low threshold of three percent at a provincial level to discriminate against the parties with a right to deputies meant that the votes were dispersed, further emphasising the fracturing of the political spectrum. Another novelty was the national list of thirty women standing for election, presented by the parties with the aim of guaranteeing a female presence in Parliament of at least ten percent of the seats.
The electoral campaign included an institutional bombardment of the media in order to encourage the population to participate. However, it proved impossible to overcome the prevailing apathy, with a decrease in participation, of 58.3 percent of the electorate in 1997 to 51.6 percent in 2002. To this abstentionism must be added the quantity of void votes, which amounted to a total of one million (being therefore the most voted option), which meant eight percent of the registered electors and 15.5 percent of the voters.
In this way, only forty-four percent of the registered electors really participated in the election, in the sense of giving their support to a specific option. The most voted party was, as in the 1997 election, the USFP, which however, lost around 160,000 votes. What was really significant about the 2002 elections was that the Islamist PJD acquired, in number of votes, the same level as the Istiqlal Party (which lost almost a quarter of a million votes), despite having presented candidates in only two thirds of the constituencies (mainly urban) according to a kind of pact with the ruling power, which meant that the party would maintain a low profile in order to avoid any reaction of the electorate that could carry it to the doors of the government. Nevertheless, its excellent results put the government into difficulties and it took some days to admit and make the definitive results public, apparently after negotiations to outline the moral victory of the Islamists.
A further complication was the negotiations held with the parties in order to reach the formation of government. The determination of the two winning parties to reach the presidency (UFP and Istiqlal), was confronted with Yusufi and Abbas El Fassi. The attempts by both at combinations to form coalitions made up of a parliamentary majority failed, and the monarch therefore imposed a Prime Minister from outside the political spectrum, appointing Driss Yettú, the Home Affairs Minister.
The new government consisted once again of a wide heterogeneous coalition of parties, made up of the USFP, PI, RNI, MP, MNP, PPS and PSD. One of the revelations of the September 2002 elections was that large cities, which in the past have been centres of a nationalist force against colonisation, and later for a bastion of workers and popular opposition to the authoritarian shift of Hassan II, was converted into a new breeding ground for Islamism. Faced with the proximity of the municipal elections planned for June 2003, this poses the need for the government parties to provide a new law allowing them to conserve their position in the town councils, especially as the new elections were anticipating the reunification of the cities that for security reasons in the 1980s were divided into many municipalities.
The debate between parties led to a consensus which maintained the uninominal system in rural areas, but instituted the proportional method for medium and large cities. The Casablanca suicide attacks of 16th May will alter the course of the electoral battle, postponed until September 2003, and forces the Islamists of the PJD once again to keep a low profile in their candidatures, therefore accomplishing an advance moderation of their presence in the future town councils.