Morocco’s illusory democracy

KA Dilday
21 September 2007

I was born in the United States and I vote for several reasons, not least because many people died so that I could vote. In the 1970s when I moved to Jackson, Mississippi, safe voting was still a relatively new thing for the black community. Blacks and whites have been harassed, murdered and lynched to make the constitutional right a reality - and the toxic race-related dispute in Jena, Louisiana shows that their joint struggles to make formal equality a route to social and legal equity are unfinished. But I also vote because I believe in the process, even as there have been significant and disturbing violations, as in the case of black voters in Florida in the 2000 congressional and presidential election.

KA Dilday worked on the New York Times opinion page until autumn 2005, when she began a writing fellowship with the Institute of Current World Affairs

During the period of the fellowship, she is travelling between north Africa and France.

Among KA Dilday's recent articles on openDemocracy:

"Barack Obama, Moroccan Ali, and me" (5 February 2007)

"Sister in spirit: Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel" (6 March 2007)

"The discomfort of strangers" (24 April 2007)

"France's two worlds" (8 May 2007)

"A girl, a knife, and Hawa Gréou" (30 May 2007)

"Morocco outside in" (14 June 2007)

"The Copenhagen syndrome" (29 June 2007 )

"Nadia Yassine's journey" (2 August 2007)

This is one citizen's take on a work-in-progress: liberal democracy. This system retains the place it won in the 20th century as the most successful and admired of all political models. Much of its popularity is owed to its capacity to deliver basic mechanisms of fairness and alternation of power, and strong social and welfare programmes, such as are found in (for example) western Europe. But what of the places beyond the western and European liberal-democratic comfort-zones, where another form of democracy - call it "illusory democracy" - operates?

In these places, there is some semblance of an electoral system, but governments do not reflect the will of the population; voters can choose, but might be intimidated; candidates can campaign, but might be puppets; tallying of votes is organised, but might be irregular; officials are elected, but can be (over-)ruled by a powerful president or monarch who routinely negates their decisions via decrees or dictates. In such countries, a disillusioned or apathetic electorate refuses to turn up at the polls since it knows the process will make little difference to their lives.

Welcome to Morocco. Here, in the parliamentary election on 7 September 2007, the established opposition party Istiqlal surprised pollsters by defeating the Islamist party, Justice & Development (PJD). Only 37% of the electorate voted.

Such low turnouts are not confined to countries where "illusory democracy" operates, but what happened in Morocco does highlight the damage done when a key element in democracy's architecture is missing or falls away: political participation. (It is interesting to note that the Economist Intelligence Unit "index of democracy", using different criteria than Freedom House's well-known Freedom in the World survey, says that the category it calls "political participation" is often erroneously left out of assessments of democratic health).

Political participation is the degree to which the electorate participates in the political process. In essence, people do not participate in elections when they believe the results will have little bearing on their lives or when they believe their participation is likely to be ignored. What does that feel like?

A fading promise

Morocco is a constitutional monarchy - like a good number of western European countries that are still considered full democracies. But in Morocco, even the young "reformist" King Mohammed VI fully exercises his power, selecting the prime minister and governor he likes with no regard for parliamentary majorities - and thus no regard for the will of the people.

In 2006, Freedom House included Morocco in its list of countries at a "crossroads". The report said: "legislative and municipal elections have become more transparent and regular, but they serve more to provide spoils for elites than to promote genuine political representation."

Indeed, legitimate elections in Morocco are fairly new. Apathy, however, is even newer: a successor to the fear that kept people in check during the long reign of King Hassan II, Mohammed VI's father. Then, Morocco's technical electoral procedures were a shadow-play behind which the "results" had been negotiated beforehand by the political parties and the Makhzen (the king and his immediate advisors); puppet parties organised by and subservient to King Hassan II were guaranteed a majority.


Also in openDemocracy on Moroccan politics and society:

Nelcya Delanoe, "Morocco: a journey in the space between monarchy and Islamism" (5 February 2003)

Nelcya Delanoe, "Morocco and Spain: united by tragedy?"(25 March 2003)

Ivan Briscoe, "Dreaming of Spain: migration and Morocco" (27 May 2004)

Rashi Khilnani, "How Morocco's free media is silenced" (19 April 2006)

Yto Barrada, "Morocco unbound: an interview" (17 May 2006)

Gregor Noll, "The Euro-African migration conference: Africa sells out to Europe"(14 July 2006)

Mohammed VI, who assumed the throne in 1999, promised a true democratic Morocco. For the 2002 parliamentary elections, people went to the polls en masse, in a brief moment of excitement and hope. They were eager to vote for actual parties, not sham ones, and hoped that the election results would fairly reflect the vote. And election observers did judge the votes to be generally free and fair. Yet the king effectively negated the results by bypassing the winning political party to select a crown loyalist as prime minister, before filling the rest of the cabinet with his cronies.

A journey inside

The results of the shift from fear to hope to apathy that has marked these years in Morocco were evident in a cross-country journey I made in the month before the 7 September election. I started at the northern tip of Tangier; made my way through the marijuana fields of the Rif mountains; left the devout eastern city of Meknès just before a suicide-bomber was foiled in his attempt to to blow up a busload of tourists; and then went up 4,000 metres into the Atlas mountains. I've been to Morocco many times, but this trip was different: I spent most of my time with working-class people rather than intellectuals - though "working class" may be a misnomer as most of them did not have any regular work.

Across the entire length of Morocco, my questions about the elections were met with indifference and resignation. It was as if I were talking about a country far, far away. Rachid, a 30-year old man I met in the Atlas mountains told me that yes, he had an uncle who was running for parliament, but couldn't recall his uncle's party affiliation. "95% of Moroccans don't vote", he said. "Why bother when every organ of the state is corrupt?"

But to read Morocco's newspapers and magazines in the pre-election days, no outsider would realise how little it all meant. Moroccan intellectuals had been galvanised by a poll in 2005 that had predicted the Party of Justice and Democracy would win a majority of seats, and had chewed on the prospect for eighteen months. The social and political elite too had been fearful of the PJD's rising influence. But elite Morocco is at odds with the rest of the country, which tends to be more conservative and rightfully suspicious of the globetrotting rich, who for many years have kept most the country's limited resources for themselves. The upper class knew that the election didn't really matter in terms of governmental influence, but worried that if the Islamist party won, investors and tourists might figure out just how devout and "traditionalist" most of the Moroccan population is and steer clear of it.

Corruption remains rife in Morocco. A kamikaze blogger from inside the country (the "Targuist sniper") who posted on a website videos Moroccans secretly took of police and other officials taking bribes generated far more discussion than who was running for what in the elections. The first free elections also seem another country, far away: little has changed for the poor and Moroccans have no confidence that the elections results will have any bearing on who rules their lives.

Only one working-class young man whom I met adamantly said he planned to vote. Mohammed, who was about 18, was a hotel clerk in Chefchaouen, a northern mountain town. He was a member of Istiqlal because his father had been, and he proudly brandished a brochure from an event hosted by an American democracy institute. Then he told my companion and me that all the Jews who worked in the World Trade Centre stayed home from work on 11 September 2001. "I think that was disproved a while ago", my companion said gently. I wonder what it said that the only person who showed interest in Morocco's elections was so poorly informed.

It was only after leaving Morocco that I read a report of a pre-election pledge by the United States of development aid worth $680 million to the country, in part as a reward for its democratic policies. It is part of a pattern: for all of the US's trumpeting of democracy and its own role in advocating and promoting it, three of the four largest recipients of its international aid (Iraq, Jordan and Egypt) are illusory democracies, and the other (Israel) is a flawed one.

"Why don't you come back and build a school?", Rachid, the 30-year old who had no plans to vote told me. "That will make a difference."

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