x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Moroccan opposition fights back

'They were focusing on the economy and corruption, rather than what has always been the PJD's core issue - Islam,' says analyst

Abdelilah Benkiran, left, the leader of the Justice and Development Party, speaks with his predecessor, Saad Eddine Othmani, in Rabat.
Abdelilah Benkiran, left, the leader of the Justice and Development Party, speaks with his predecessor, Saad Eddine Othmani, in Rabat.

Morocco's political opposition has undergone a makeover that has some critics speculating about a shift towards a reinvigorated party intent on an Islamic government in the north African country. The election of Abdelilah Benkiran to the leadership of the Justice and Development Party (PJD) last month came as a surprise to political analysts, who said the party will now take a more conservative approach.

His win over Saad Eddine Othmani, the PJD's leader for the past five years, has its roots in the party's poor performance in last year's general election. Morocco's largest Islamic party was expected to win the majority of seats and form a coalition government, but was overwhelmed by the more conservative Istiqlal Party and left on the sidelines. Mr Othmani had been accused of trying to steer the party away from its mainstay issue: Islamic values.

The party is now expected to revert to its traditional image in a bid to woo back voters. Shadi Hamid, the director of research at the Project on Middle East Democracy, said Mr Benkiran, 53, was a "staunch social conservative" and the change of leadership revealed "a certain amount of internal discontent" within the party. Issandr El Amrani, a North African analyst with the International Crisis Group, said Mr Benkiran's win reflected disappointment with the party's election tactics.

"They were focusing on the economy and corruption, rather than what has always been the PJD's core issue, which is Islam, morality and public life." The change of leadership continues moves by the party against such issues as gay marriage. "This type of populist approach is likely to be used more often," Mr Amrani said. "This is one of the main tools they have to attract the popular level supporters and energise their base of populist conservatism."

Mr Benkiran has a reputation as a strict enforcer of moral standards. He once interrupted a speech in parliament after a woman entered the chamber wearing jeans and a T-shirt. He refused to continued talking until the woman left. Mr Amrani said Mr Benkiran, who helped found the party, had a reputation as "quite a forceful and ? autocratic political leader". "He is a pragmatic, roll-up-your-sleeves type of politician.

"He may not be as charming and presentable as Saad Eddine Othmani, but he is very much a consummate political animal." Mr Benkiran faces a tough time, with the party still recovering from the aftershocks of suicide attacks in Casablanca in 2003 that killed more than 45, and prompted a clamp down on all Islamist groups. Some political forces in the country had called for the PJD - which had never been linked to the bombings - to be banned.

Critics said the party wants to turn the country into an Islamic state and point to the hard line taken by Attajdid (The Renewal), the PJD affiliated newspaper, as evidence. In Jan 2005, it published an article claiming the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed more than 220,000 people in 11 countries was God's punishment for sex tourism, homosexuality and child trafficking in South East Asia. Religion is making a comeback in Morocco, a country where more than 99 per cent of the 34 million residents are Muslim. It is a resurgence that the PJD hopes to ride, but it faces some tough challenges, including the need for the party to co-operate with Morocco's secular establishment.

Any party that wins an election in Morocco still needs the approval of King Mohammed VI, who appoints the government and controls the army. Recently there have been moves to curb the king's powers, and it will be up to Mr Benkiran to set the party's stance on whether it wants to challenge the status quo. Mr Benkiran's first major political test will be leading the party in municipal elections next year in a bid to take control of some of the biggest cities in Morocco. Success in 2009 will prove vital to the party's chances in the next general election, due in 2012.

However, Mr Amrani said the PJD would always struggle to find a balance between participating in the political process and meeting the demands from Islamist traditionalists. "It is going to have to both avoid the perceived mistakes of the September 2007 elections and appeal more to the political conservatives, yet at the same time not fall into the trap of becoming the caricature that its opponents describe it as."

@Email:bslabbert@thenational.ae