x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Morocco election shows an alternative to revolution

The moderate Islamists who won Morocco's election may alarm some, but there are good reasons why they should be asked to lead a coalition government.

Yesterday, as the Kingdom of Morocco celebrated the Islamic New Year of 1433, the only legal Islamic party in the country - the moderate Justice and Development Party (PJD) - was celebrating its first-ever victory in a parliamentary election.

The PJD came close once before, in 2007, owing to its popularity among the poorer and conservative classes, as well as to its organisation, straight talk and record of achievements in opposition.

But the political establishment was not ready then to let the PJD into power, and it settled for second place that time.

Now the party has scored a crystal-clear win. Parties on the left and the right, even those that have long enjoyed the blessing of the palace, helplessly watched PJD candidates grab one seat after another in the 395-member lower house of parliament.

Losing political office is part and parcel of a democratic system. In this election there were not many strings available for the establishment to pull.

By the time partial results were announced on Saturday, the PJD had clinched 80 of the 288 seats decided as the counting progressed, with 30 other parties in competition.

Though they were way ahead of their closest contender, the Islamists will still have to forge difficult alliances, including, inevitably, some with liberal parties.

The peculiar Moroccan "electoral lists" system, which begs for an overhaul, means that it is practically impossible for any one party to obtain a parliamentary majority on its own.

But whatever the outcome of the upcoming party manoeuvres, that Islamists were allowed to win by such a margin in Morocco is in itself one of the strongest signs that the country's electoral process was fairer than it has ever been before.

The success of these elections serves the interests of the palace. In fact, the vote needed to be as honest and transparent as possible, because it had come to be the litmus test of the constitutional reforms proposed by King Mohammed VI in March, in response to street protests calling for change.

When Morocco's popular monarch throws his full weight behind any process of change, everyone else, parties and people, do follow suit.

With the convulsions of the Arab Spring in mind, organising successful elections with a respectable 45.4 per cent turnout, instead of enduring the uncertainty and the wounds of a full-fledged revolution, is quite a political feat.

But not all segments of Moroccan society were pleased.

The February 20 Movement, which has led the protest lobby in the country since the start of the Arab Spring, called for a boycott of these elections.

The group argues that the new constitution did not take away enough powers from the palace, which means the new government that will come out of these parliamentary elections will be weak.

But many others in Morocco feel that the new constitution has given comparatively extended powers to the head of government, and that it guarantees more civil liberties, while leaving the king as a powerful player in the political process.

With the voting finished, the ball now is in the king's court. It's up to him, under the new constitution, to nominate a member of the winning party to form a new government.

Abdelillah Benkirane, being the secretary general of the PJD, should in principle be named head of government sometime this week.

And though the king will only be practising his constitutional right if he chooses someone other than Mr Benkirane from the PJD, it would make much more sense if the head of the party gets the honour (however averse he may be to wearing a necktie).

If the king were to name someone else, it would look like the palace is intervening heavily, rather than simply playing the anticipated stabilising role of arbiter among the parties.

There is also an international aspect to this political question. Economically, Morocco has a strong commitment to its first trading partner, the European Union, which grants it regular development loans on the basis of tangible progress achieved in infrastructure, human development and democratisation.

So it is in Morocco's best interest to keep its European partners happy by satisfying the many voters who saw Mr Benkirane as the face of change.

Another factor the palace will bear in mind is that Morocco's stability - which this essentially fair vote should help entrench - is key to its tourism sector, the country's third source of income (after phosphate exports and emigrants' remittances).

In a year of political volatility across the region, Morocco's stability amounts to a strategic asset. Stability attracts foreign investment, notably from Gulf states seeking to diversify their economies; this year the six-state Gulf Cooperation Council invited Morocco to join.

Last Thursday, just before the elections, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar, and Sheikh Mustafa Jassim Al Shamali, the Kuwaiti finance minister, met with King Mohammed VI in a high-profile ceremony to sign multi-billion-dollar investment deals in Morocco's tourism sector.

Morocco, a developing country with a high rate of poverty and illiteracy, needs urgently to preserve the lustre of stability.

True, there are those who fear that Islamists may turn out to be bad for business, bad for tourism and bad for liberties.

But those people ought to remember that all previous failures in these very sectors have been the making of secular parties.

The PJD has every right to enjoy the benefit of its election victory, and take power for the first time.