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Political Parties, Elections, and the Illusion of Opposition in Morocco

[Foreign Minister Saad-Eddine Al-Othmani of Morocco during a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at the Department of State in Washington, D.C. on March 15, 2012. Photo taken by the US Department of State and uploaded via Wikimedia Commons] [Foreign Minister Saad-Eddine Al-Othmani of Morocco during a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at the Department of State in Washington, D.C. on March 15, 2012. Photo taken by the US Department of State and uploaded via Wikimedia Commons]


For the last several months, Moroccan politics has been dominated by the results of the October 2016 parliamentary elections, the subsequent blocage in the Islamist Justice and Development Party(PJD) creating a governing coalition, and the announcement of a new government.  Pro-state media narratives blamed the PJD’s former leader, Abdelilah Benkirane, and his inability to form a coalition. After more than five months of stalled talks, King Mohammed VI relieved Benkirane of his position and nominated former foreign minister and number 2 in the PJD, Saadedine Othmani, as the head of government. 

Othmani quickly formed a coalition of parties, including the Party of Justice of Development(PJD), the National Rally of Independents(RNI), the Socialist Union of Popular Forces(USFP), the Popular Movement (MP), the Constitutional Union (UC), and the Party of Progress and Socialism (PPS). This new government included a larger number of Palace allies such as the RNI and non-party technocrats, who maintained control over key ministries, while the PJD’s role has diminished.

These most recent political events in Morocco illustrate the continuation and intensification of palace control over the party system under the nearly twenty-year reign of King Mohammed VI. They show how the stated commitment to power sharing throughout this period has not come to fruition.  Two particularly important periods in recent history, that of the alternance project[1] from 1998-2002 and the blocage under Benkirane in 2016-2017 reveal to what extent promises of reform amount to a short-term project of political expediency often used to discredit, divide, and ultimately defeat any semblance of an opposition attempting to work within the confines of electoral politics. Overall, the rules of the political game have not drastically changed since the power struggles directly after Moroccan independence in that the Palace remains focused on consolidating rather than sharing power.

The Role of Morocco’s Multiparty System 

Morocco was unique in its development of a multi-party system after its independence from France in 1956. Its 1962 constitution laid out this system and the first round of national parliamentary elections were held in 1963. Unlike other countries across the region, where a dominant single-party system prevailed during this period, party pluralism became a major aspect of political culture in Morocco. On the surface, such a framework creates the impression of a burgeoning democratic system, but the establishment of a multiparty system in Morocco was based on careful calculations and power struggles in the wake of independence. 

The primary players in the power struggle of the 1950s were the monarch, King Mohammed V, and the nationalist party, the Istiqlal (PI). The question was who would come out as the dominant force in post-independence Moroccan politics, and the development of a multiparty system was a strategic mechanism that tilted the balance against Istiqlal and in favor of the monarchy. The main strategy that ensured the monarchy’s dominance in this power struggle were its control over local administrations, the interior ministry, and key institutions of defense—such as the police and army. In addition to this influence, the strategy of sowing division within the Istiqlal, as well as the creation of new parties, worked to weaken this nationalist party.[2]

Michael Willis argues that the development of the Popular Movement (MP) and the National Union of Popular Forces (UNFP) splitting off from Istiqlal in the 1950s, as well as the creation of a royalist block of parties known as Front for the Defense of Constitutional Institutions (FDIC), were facilitated through royal interference and manipulation with the aim of permanently containing the Istiqlal.  The rural base of the Popular Movement was also attractive to the palace to counter the largely urban base behind the Istiqlal party. 

This strategy worked to prevent any major political party from establishing a real power base that could threaten the power of the monarchy. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the monarch was increasingly isolated. King Hassan II declared a state of emergency in 1965, suspending parliament, suffered two coup attempts in the early 1970s, and faced strong political opposition from the al-Kutla al-Watanniyya (National Bloc). 

The Green march of 1975 and the national consensus surrounding Morocco’s claim to the Western Sahara helped to mitigate much of the opposition against the monarchy because of its role in leading this national cause. After this historical moment, the National Bloc parties opted to partake in electoral politics again. During this period parties that currently play crucial roles in Morocco’s multiparty system, such as the National Rally of Independents(RNI), and the Constitutional Union(UC), were also founded. The RNI was founded in 1978 by King Hassan’s brother-in-law, and it is often perceived as a royalist block of technocrats that has played a significant role in the country’s various governments.[3] 

The co-optation and control of Moroccan politics is a function of the palace’s manipulation and dividing of parties within the framework of a multiparty system. This was the strategy under King Mohammed V, and it intensified under King Hassan II and his influential interior minister Driss Basri. It was a powerful tool employed to give the image of democratization while maintaining palace dominance over formal party politics. This political pluralism was a source of legitimacy in many ways. But, in Morocco, the multiparty system reinforced the centralized power of the monarchy by weakening formal opposition parties. 

The question then becomes, in what ways has this system changed after the promises of political reform in King Mohammed VI’s Morocco? The short answer to this question is, not much. 

This monarch became king in 1999 during the alternance period, after his father nominated the first ever socialist head of government. He supported some human rights reforms, limited political liberalization, and responded to the 2011 Arab Spring protests with a new constitution and promises of substantive power sharing with the head of government.

However, a closer look at periods of political reform and elections during the current king’s reign sheds light on the manner in which both elections and discourses on political reform are short-term tools used to quell dissent, co-opt opposition, no matter how weak or illusory, and then reassert palace dominance. The rise and fall of opposition parties, such as the USFP and the PJD, best demonstrate this occurrence in the milieu of Moroccan party politics.

Section 2: USFP, the Kutla Alliance, and Alternance 

On the surface, the 1997 legislative elections and rise of the Kutla alliance[4] offer a strong image of genuine sources of alternative political voices. The alternance experiment was popular and stirred optimism among civil society and some political elites, but the electoral process that led to the Kutla victory was business as usual in Moroccan politics. Even though there was popular demand for the alternance project from civil society, the palace’s traditional mechanisms of control were used to ensure a specific political outcome that did not challenge its entrenched interests and political power. King Hassan II was firmly in control and used this project to implicate the popular socialist opposition into the difficult business of governing—without giving them enough power to actually do so.[5] 

Hassan II attempted to implement the alternance project in 1993, but the Kutla alliance refused to join the government in spite of a strong electoral showing. However, when the 1996 constitution established a bicameral legislature and Kutla won a plurality of seats in the 1997 elections, it finally decided to join the government. In 1998, the new government and Prime Minister Abderrahmane Youssoufi were sworn in, and “the move was heralded both inside and outside Morocco as a significant step forward.”[6]

As positive as this process seemed, the 1997 elections were marked by heavy regime intervention. The election led to a nearly equal split in political representation in the lower house between the Kutla alliance, the Wifaq bloc (royalist parties), and a new “center bloc” that was made of mostly conservative parties. Five more parties, including the Islamist association Al-Islah wa’l-Tajdid,[7] took the remaining twenty-six seats.

The indirectly elected upper house had a similar result where no one party maintained a clear majority and the representation was almost equally split between the left, center, and right coalitions. [8] The motivation behind heavy regime interference likely came from the strategic importance of co-opting the ‘legal opposition’ to weaken their popularity, while ensuring that they did not gain enough power to pose a real challenge to the palace’s influence.

The socialist party even agreed to enter the government in partnership with their long-time enemy, interior minister Driss Basri. The cooperation between King Hassan and Youssoufi in this project shifted when the king passed away in 1999 and the socialist leader began working with Mohammed VI.  Several Kutla members began to believe that alternance was a trap to ensure their political demise, and when the new king dismissed Prime Minister Youssoufi in 2002 and named technocrat Driss Jettou as his replacement their fears appeared to be confirmed.[9]

In spite of the USFP winning a plurality of votes in the 2002 elections, by 2007, they lost out to the Istiqlal party and the Islamist party of Justice and Development(PJD), who finished first and second respectively. The project of co-opting and weakening both Youssoufi and the USFP was complete by that point, but the new concern for the Palace became the increasing popularity of the PJD and its leadership.

The shift in alliances was quick. The Istiqlal went from one of the major parties in the opposition Kutla alliance to seizing power in 2007 and towing the palace line more strongly than ever. Not only were the 2007 elections marred by record-low turnout, but there were accusations of corruption and bribes that ensured an Istiqlal win over the PJD.

Timing was an important factor for these changes. The late 1990s and early 2000s was a period of transition for Morocco. The alleged reform process began under King Hassan in the 1990s with the establishment of the Consultative Council of Human Rights (now known as CNDH), a series of royal pardons, an anti-corruption campaign[10] and a new constitution in 1996. After King Hassan’s passing in 1999, there was considerable hope that the new king would embrace and expand his father’s alternance project by working with Youssoufi. Yet the dismissal of Youssoufi in 2002 was one the earliest signs that projects for political reform would be short-lived and under careful control of the Palace.

Similar to the current Palace relationship with the PJD, the USFP was limited by the confines of the system and was not allowed control over major ministries. The Kutla alliance not only lacked a parliamentary majority, but the king insisted on keeping its control over the most powerful ministerial portfolios, such as the Minister of Interior, Justice, Foreign Affairs, and Islamic Affairs.[11] This is similar to the Benkirane government of 2011, as well as Othmani’s current government. Smaller parties like the RNI and technocrats allied to the Palace maintained the most significant ministerial portfolios, including Interior, Foreign Affairs, Justice, Finance, Islamic Affairs, and Agriculture and Fisheries.

Section 3: The PJD from 2011-2017

The elections which took place in the aftermath of the Arab Spring protests ushered in Islamist parties across the region, including Morocco. As of 2017, Morocco’s PJD is the only one still attempting to hold on to the reins of power. It won the plurality of votes in the parliamentary elections of 2011 and 2016, as well as dominating urban areas in the 2015 local elections.

The coalition that developed during the February 20th movement initially included dozens of different groups, ranging from the popular Islamist association Al-Adl wa-Ihssan, to human rights groups and more secular/leftist associations and unions. This joining of various opposition forces and the presence of mass protests denouncing state corruption and calling for substantive power sharing put the palace on the defensive. However, the king helped break this momentum by calling for a new constitution and the holding of elections. There were also disagreements within February 20th pertaining to varying levels of opposition and whether the monarchy should be directly attacked. Between these divisions and the palace’s prompt reaction in March 2011, a series of reforms were promoted and seemed to take away much of the movement’s energy, even if the reform process was short-term, undemocratic, and has yet to substantively come to fruition.

After the PJD won the legislative elections of 2011, the PJD-Palace alliance quickly began to reveal various tensions over issues such as ministry nominees, government reform programs such as the anti-corruption campaign, as well as power struggles between Benkirane, the head of government, and the overwhelming governing power given to the king’s royal cabinet. One early area of conflict was the nomination of Mustapha Ramid as Justice minister during the Benkirane government. Ramid secured this post, which was viewed as a significant win for the PJD. But he was replaced in the 2017 Othmani government by Mohammed Aujjar, a member of the RNI executive board. Ramid is now a state minister in charge of human rights.    

Along the classical rules of Moroccan party politics, the rise of the PJD was mirrored by the creation and cultivation of another political party in 2008. The Party of Authenticity and Modernity was founded by current royal counselor Fouad Ali Al Himma and is subsequently widely perceived as a close ally of the Palace. It has led the opposition coalition in government, against the PJD, and became the party’s number one rival leading up to the 2016 elections. Consequently, during this period that Benkirane was attempting to govern, he “governed” with palace allies in his coalition, such as RNI, while also fighting another palace partner at the head of the opposition block of parties, the PAM.

As election season started back up in 2015, with the holding of local elections, and the subsequent national elections of 2016, observers viewed these as crucial tests for the popularity of the PJD, as well as a way to gage palace interference in party politics. After the 2011 moment led to promises of reform, 2016 was set to be a major test.  Could the PJD maintain its momentum despite various setbacks and the rise of the PAM? Would the Palace accept a PJD victory and another Benkirane government? If the PJD did win, could Benkirane be removed with the same fluidity as Youssoufi was in 2002? In the lead up to the October 2016 elections, these were key questions. 

Similarities between the two periods

Following the 2011 protests in Morocco, critical observers expected that the Palace would again co-opt the the opposition party, in a manner similar to the alternance period. This would lead to two desired goals: first, to cultivate the legitimacy of the ballot box during a period of pressure on the Palace and/or transition; and second, to simultaneously co-opt, weaken, and eventually delegitimize a potential rival, such as the PJD and popular leaders like Benkirane.

Similar to the alternance period and the USFP-led governing coalition, palace allies remained in place directly and indirectly, in both the governing and opposition coalition after the 2011 parliamentary elections. Hence lies the difficulty of determining the divisions between the “deep state” and the opposition in the context of political parties. Even within the “opposition” parties working within the electoral system, there are well-known palace allies. This helps the strategy that Driss Basri perfected under King Hassan II and that continues to this day—that of dividing and creating political parties with especially close proximity to the Palace.[12] Under Hassan it the RNI and UC embodied this model, and under King Mohammed VI, it has become the RNI and the PAM.

Just as the weakening of the USFP began with their entry into government, the removal of their leader Youssoufi, and the regime fomenting internal divisions, the recent political events in Morocco reveals the process of attempting to discard with the PJD. As the USFP won another legislative victory in 2002, it’s leader was removed and a palace technocrat was put into place. The PJD won a second legislative mandate in 2016, but it’s popular leader was removed, albeit through a more strategic process than what occurred with Youssoufi in 2002.

The now notorious five month blocage that took place after the October 2016 elections revealed several similarities and differences with the aftermath of the 2002 elections. While Benkirane was eventually asked to step down because of the inability to form a government, there was a more public process of palace allies attempting to sabotage the entire process.

The major character playing the role of palace intermediary in the coalition talks was the new RNI leader, billionaire businessman, and a close friend of the king, Aziz Akhannouch. The conditions he requested of Benkirane demonstrated attempts to weaken the PJD by including various smaller parties in the coalition, such as insisting on the inclusion of the USFP. After more than five months and a common media narrative blaming Benkirane for the problems surrounding coalition talks, King Mohammed VI removed Benkirane and named the PJD’s number two leader, Othmani.

Rather than name a palace technocrat as head of government, which happened with Driss Jettou in 2002, the 2011 constitution played a more significant role in the discourse surrounding Benkirane’s removal. In theory, the King paid attention to the PJD win and article 47 of the constitution—which stipulates that the king choose a head of government from the party winning the plurality of votes. But after the nomination of Othmani, the announcement of the governing coalition parties and the ministerial portfolios revealed a clear proclivity for technocrats and members of the RNI—who secured the most strategic ministries.

PJD leader Mustapha Ramid lost his position as Minister of Justice and became Minister of State for Human Rights, and the RNI currently controls Finance, Agriculture and Fisheries, and Industry, while non-party palace allies can be found at Interior, Religious Affairs, Foreign Affairs, and Education. A palace ally among the PJD, Aziz Rebbah, holds the most important portfolio for the Islamists, after head of government—the Ministry of Energy.


Abdeslam Maghraoui insists that King Hassan’s main legacy is found in the institutional persistence of the Makhzen. This means that Morocco’s political development has revolved around strengthening the monarchy and its system of patronage and governance. The reinforcement and growth of monarchical power has occurred through a strategy of “using modern institutions to preserve medieval political authority,” which relies on a carrot-stick approach to control, working through mechanisms of rent distribution, co-optation, corruption and repression.[13]

Some have written off both Benkirane and the PJD as co-opted palace puppets because of their role in the governing coalition and the deference to the Palace. Yet the question of opposition parties working with the Makhzen system should be understood by degrees and fluctuating proximity to the Palace, with the possibility of limited dissent.  The fluidity of alliances in the Moroccan context demonstrates to what extent a party can fluctuate from close Palace ally to a more overt force of opposition, even if it’s only in rhetoric.[14]

The multiparty system remains one of the key tools in delegitimizing and controlling political parties in Morocco. Through a combination of lower voter turnout and regime interference, Morocco’s parliament and opposition parties remain weak. As this piece attempts to demonstrate, in order to work within the parliamentary system, all parties must accept the power of the palace, a limited political mandate, and Morocco’s red-lines of Monarchy, Islam, and Territorial Integrity. It is true that the formal political system is strongly shaped by regime interference, and thus the political parties may all seem purely state actors. However, when one speaks of opposition parties and actors, it’s a question of degrees and changing proximity to the palace.

Even though both the USFP and the PJD chose to take part in formal politics and thus play by the palace rules, they did attempt to push for greater power-sharing at various points under both King Hassan II and King Mohammed VI. There were periods where they chose to work closely with the palace, and periods when they tried to push back.  Hence the difference between more classic “royalist parties” such as the National Rally of Independents and formal “opposition” parties such as the PJD and the USFP.

The regime will use certain opposition parties for temporary alliances of political expediency, as was the case the late 1990s during alternance, with regime change on the horizon, as well as when the regime felt pressure during the 2011 Arab Spring protest mo vement. Yet just as the palace is quick to form alliances, it will just as swiftly abandon them. As Moroccan historian Maati Monjib concluded: “After having treated the PJD as their savior in 2011, the traditional elites now believe it has outlived its usefulness.”

The integral questions now are whether this co-optation of the PJD will translate into party division and losses in the coming elections, as occurred with the USFP in 2007. The second question is, if the PJD loses its popularity at the ballot box, which parties and/or associations will take its place?

[1]  “Alternance” or ‘Al Tanawoub’  -means ‘rotation of power’ and corresponds to the period where the opposition Kutlia alliance was in power (from 1997-2007), but especially the period of 1998-2002, when Socialist leader Abderrahmane Youssoufi was head of government. See Mohammed Ibahrine, “Democratisation and the Press: the case of Morocco,” Nord-Sud aktuelle, 2002.

[2] See Waterbury(1970), Zartman(1982), Willis(2012). 

[3] Michael Willis, Politics and Power in the Maghreb: Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco from Independence to the Arab Spring, (Hurst and Companu, London: 2012), 127.

[4] The two largest parties in the Kutla alliance/block were the USFP and Istiqlal. 

[5] Catherine Sweet (2001), “Democratization without Democracy,” 22.

[6] Willis, Politics and Power in the Maghreb, 141-142.

[7] “Reform and Renewal” and later known as the Justice and Development Party (PJD), which currently leads Morocco’s governing coalition.

[8] Catherine Sweet, “Democratization without Democracy: Political Openings and Closures in Modern Morocco,” Middle East Report, No. 218 (Spring, 2001), 24.

[9] Willis, Politics and Power in the Maghreb, 142.

[10] Guilain Denoeux, 'Understanding Morocco's ' sanitation campaign', Journal of North African Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Spring 1998).

[11] Willis, Politics and Power in the Maghreb, 142.

[12] Mohammed Ettayea, Abderrahmane Youssoufi et les dessous de l’alternance, Telquel Media, 2015.

[13] A. Maghraoui, “Political Authority in Crisis,” 13-14.

[14] See Waterbury (1970), “The Commander of the Faithful.” 

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