The Myth of Moroccan Democracy

The Myth of Moroccan Democracy

Earlier this month Morocco, one of America’s closest Arab allies, held national elections. Touted as a bold step toward democracy, the vote was closely watched in the West. But the elections, rather than proving a success, have raised difficult questions about the future of Moroccan democracy and highlighted the flaws in America’s approach to democracy promotion.

In the lead-up to the polls, analysts painted the contest as a test of Islam’s political strength. Islamists had risen to power in Iraq, Palestine, and Turkey; and many wondered whether Morocco would be next.

The main Islamist organization in the country — the Justice and Development Party (PJD) — was widely expected to win the largest number of seats, following the lead of religious-based groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the similarly named Justice and Development Party in Turkey. But instead of securing a projected 70 – 80 seats, the PJD won only 47, coming in second to the secular Istiqlal Party. This is the first time an Islamist party has disappointed after an unprecedented series of electoral gains for Islamists throughout the Middle East.

But the story here is not about the impending failure of political Islam. After all, Islamist parties, like their secular counterparts, will experience fluctuations in support from election to election. The larger story — one that has rarely been discussed in the Western press — is about the failure of so-called Moroccan “democracy” and, by extension, the failure of a paradigm that hoped gradual, top-down democratization would pave the way forward for the Middle East.

In 2004-5, with landmark elections in Iraq, Lebanon, and Egypt, observers heralded what would come to be known as the “Arab Spring.” Even as spring turned to winter, and hopes of a democratic transformation dimmed, Morocco appeared a lone bright spot in a region once again losing its way.

King Mohammed VI, Western-educated and refined, was a visionary, American officials believed, and was boldly moving his country toward economic and political progress. In a 2006 trip to Casablanca, Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes called Morocco an “important model for the wider region” and a country “at the forefront” of political reform. Since 2004, the U.S. has rewarded Morocco by tripling economic aid. On Aug. 31, in a move that received little fanfare at home, the United States agreed to grant Morocco $700 million over five years through the Millennium Challenge Account, one of the last remaining relics of the Bush administration’s “freedom agenda.”

But on the ground is a different reality, one which U.S. policymakers are loathe to admit. In the past several years, genuine democratic reform has been limited, if not nonexistent, and there are few indications this will change. Ultimate authority in Morocco rests squarely with the monarchy. The king appoints the prime minister who in turn appoints the cabinet. The parliament itself has no jurisdiction over major areas like trade policy, foreign affairs, and national security. Historically, parliament has served mostly as a glorified debating forum. Elected representatives know this better than anyone else, and most choose not to even show up when parliament is in session.

Indeed, Morocco’s process of political reform has been little more than a cynical charade designed to strengthen the monarchy’s grip on power. In the late 1990s, the monarchy’s decision to bring opposition parties into the government was hailed as a step toward democratic change. But, as Marina Ottaway and Meredith Riley note in a 2006 Carnegie report, the king maintained full control over most of the decision making, thereby “co-opting the two main opposition parties of long standing without being forced to give up any power or change policies.” More recently, a new electoral law has further undercut the power of parliament by making it nearly impossible for any one party to win a majority of seats.

This is what some scholars have referred to as “managed” or “defensive” democratization, whereby regimes implement risk-free, cosmetic reforms that give their citizens an outlet to vent but little more. By having elected parliaments and periodic elections, Arab dictatorships can deflect citizen demands, while getting the international legitimacy they crave.

Not surprisingly, Moroccans have had little faith in their king’s promise of democracy. Since the 67 percent turnout of the 1984 election — which was generally regarded as free and fair — voter apathy has risen dramatically. In the 2002 polls, turnout dipped to 52 percent, with 17 percent of voters casting blank protest ballots. In these latest elections, Moroccans still aren’t buying it — they voted by staying home in record numbers. Turnout was at an all-time low of 37 percent, a clear indication that Moroccans increasingly feel their votes are irrelevant.

Although American policymakers have been quick to put their trust in the hands of an “enlightened” monarch, this top-down style of reform has led Morocco not toward democracy, but away from it. With little sustained U.S. pressure, the king has been unwilling to cede power to democratic institutions. Ultimately, last week’s vote may very well prove to be a turning point, but not in the way people expect: The greatest casualty is not political Islam but rather the image of a democratic oasis the Moroccan regime has worked so hard to create and that the United States has been more than willing to accept without question.