Moroccans head to the polls today for their first parliamentary elections since the Arab uprisings began. It is also their first election since July, when a set of constitutional reforms giving more power to the parliament and prime minister, were approved in a referendum. In some ways, today’s election is a test of whether those constitutional reforms were sufficient to satisfy public opinion, which has grown increasingly disgruntled with the slow pace of reform in Morocco.
Morocco’s king, Mohammed VI, is widely viewed as a benevolent leader who is incrementally moving his country down a path of modernization and reform. He instituted a period of greater political openness–freeing political prisoners and giving more leeway to the press–when he assumed power in 1999 upon the death of his father, King Hassan II. But after the terrorist bombings that rocked Casablanca in 2003, those reforms stalled. This spring, Morocco was not immune from the uprisings that shook the region, but the demonstrations were more subdued than in neighboring countries. Still, to get ahead of the curve, King Mohammed announced a number of constitutional changes that reduced his own near-absolute power, including: allowing the largest elected party to name the prime minister (instead of the king); allowing the prime minister to appoint the government; making the judiciary independent; adding Berber as an official language; and acknowledging that the king is no longer sacred (although he is still an important religious leader). The changes were overwhelming approved by voters in July, although they still fell far short of the constitutional monarchy that many demand. As a further measure of self-preservation, the king also doubled food and fuel subsidies, added many new government jobs, and raised public employees’ salaries. Nevertheless, people remain angry about failing education and health systems, and widespread corruption in the economy, especially the enrichment of the king’s cronies who have become wealthy from state contracts and monopolies in a fashion not dissimilar to the cronyism in Tunisia and Egypt.
All of these changes seem to have bought King Mohammed some important breathing room. But the vote today will undoubtedly be interpreted as a referendum on the viability of the king’s incremental, middle-ground approach to change. One of the groups most critical of the government is the February 20 Movement for Change, which formed as a result of the Arab uprisings. They are calling for a boycott of the election, to indicate their dissatisfaction with the lack of deeper reforms. On the other hand, the main Islamist party, the moderate Justice and Development Party (PJD), supported the constitutional changes, and takes a pragmatic approach. Appealing to the broad swath of the population that fears the disruptive revolutions that have affected neighboring countries, they call for a peaceful transition. The PJD is likely to emerge as the biggest winners of the election, riding the coattails of the Al Nahda Party in Tunisia which emerged victorious in their October election. If voter turnout is very low, however, that will be a sign that many people listened to the February 20 Movement for Change, and stayed home in protest for deeper, faster reforms.