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Mounting Tensions Between Morocco’s Main Political Parties

Tensions Political Parties
Anti-government protesters from the 20th February, the Moroccan Arab Spring movement, shout as thousands of teacher trainees march in Rabat, Morocco, denouncing government measures that would trim the education branch of the public sector through cuts in subsidies and jobs, January 24, 2016. Photo Abdeljalil Bounhar / AP.

The second post-Arab Spring parliamentary elections in Morocco are scheduled for 7 September 2016, and tensions are already mounting between the main political parties. Not only do the elections constitute an evaluation of the success or failure of the constitutional reforms that Morocco adopted in 2011, but also a litmus test for the performance of the country’s first Islamist party: the Justice and Development Party (PJD), which was founded in 1998 and brought to power by the Arab uprisings.

The elections come one year after the 4 September 2015 municipal elections, in which 140,000 candidates from more than 30 parties competed for 30,000 local council seats and 700 regional council seats and which established PJD’s opponent, the modernist Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM), founded in 2008, as a force to be reckoned with in the political fray.

In addition to these two main parties, two other parties have entered the race to secure the maximum number of seats in the upcoming parliament: Istiqlal Party (IT), a nationalist and conservative party founded in 1943, making it the oldest in the country, and the National Rally of Independents (RNI), an ‘administrative’ (pro-status-quo) party founded in 1978.

While both the IT and PJD are conservative and have a large number of supporters, the PJD seeks to Islamize Moroccan society and politics and IT does not. Similarly, while both the PAM and RNI are backed by the monarchy, the PAM has attracted more supporters since its creation than the much older RNI, as a reaction to the conservative parties.

The four parties, which hold the majority of seats in the parliament, have started campaigning in an atmosphere that is frequently regarded as antagonistic in both the conventional sphere and on social media. As the ruling party, the PJD is being confronted by the three other parties in debates that are attracting a lot of interest among Moroccans.

One of the most significant ‘battles’, which is pitting old political enemies the PAM and PJD against each other, is the issue of hashish (cannabis) cultivation and other drug-associated plants. Although it is illegal, Morocco produces a significant share of the world’s hashish, most of it in the north of the country. In the years 2002-2010, it was the top producer and in 2012 it was surpassed only by Afghanistan. The PJD and PAM disagree on how to use the cannabis production and both parties have politicized the issue.

Where the PJD stresses the economic and social development of the northern region and improving the infrastructure and living conditions of the inhabitants as a way to regulate and diminish the need to cultivate hashish, the PAM emphasizes the legalization and control of hashish cultivation – not only its use but also its pricing with the aim of using it in the medical and industrial fields, which the PJD calls ‘marketing illusions’. Ilias Elomari, the head of the PAM, states that his party is the only one that can end PJD rule by imposing its views on the hashish agreement.

The PJD is leading another ‘battle’ against its other rival, the IT. While there is a ‘good’ underlying relationship between the two parties, the prime minister and PJD leader consistently reminds his IT counterpart that he should not have resigned from the first Islamist mandate (2011-2013), insinuating that this resignation created a crisis of trust.

The PJD is also at loggerheads with the RNI, with the RNI accusing the PJD of being a follower of Egypt’s failed Muslim Brotherhood.

The four main parties are contesting 395 seats in the general elections. Although Morocco is known for its stability, the unsteady political reforms and lack of consensus between the main political parties may create a stalemate that further alienates young people.

A snapshot of social media reactions to the party politics shows that the ‘hidden’ dynamics that characterized the September 2015 municipal elections will not be absent from the 2016 general elections and that the political parties are fully aware of this fact. The Moroccan electorate is undergoing a significant demographic change and is transiting from mainly urban to neither urban nor rural in the sense that more young rural men and women are moving to urban areas bringing their own ideas with them. As such, this electorate will be more technologically and digitally savvy, and hence very demanding. This is making the competition for votes even fiercer than might otherwise be the case. The PJD is seeking a third mandate to finish the reforms it has announced. The PAM, IT and RNI are determined to gain as many seats as possible, which is intensifying the verbal battles between the parties.