Yasmina Abouzzohour, University of Oxford

The Moroccan regime has emerged from the Arab uprisings stronger than ever, and its inclusion of the legal Islamist party, the Justice and Development Party (PJD), into the political sphere has made the kingdom a sort of exception to its anti-Islamist counterparts. Indeed, at first glance, it is the Islamists who came out of Morocco’s Arab Spring victorious. During the kingdom’s first elections after the Tunisia-triggered protests, the PJD – the socially conservative and politically moderate, Islamist leading party in Morocco – won 22.8 percent of the vote (Morocco Ministry of Interior, 2011). This is a significant percentage in a country with 38 political parties and where the largest vote share for any political party never earned more than 15.38 percent before then, see Figure 1.

The PJD’s electoral win in 2011 meant that the party obtained 107 seats in parliament (out of 395), saw its secretary-general, Abdelilah Benkirane, appointed as prime minister, and took control of major ministerial positions. The party’s impressive results in 2011 and its even more successful performance in the 2016 legislative elections (125 seats and 28 percent of the vote) were due to its unfaltering urban support. However, its hold over rural areas has historically been weak (Mouline 2016). Importantly, rural vote bias against Islamist parties is not unique to the Moroccan case; Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won the majority of its votes in the urbanized north during the 1990 local elections and the 1991 legislatives, but had little support in the rural south (Willis 1999: 134-5).

The PJD’s electoral success among urban voters and its presence as the only Islamist party still heading a government in the Arab world, has led a growing body of literature to look at the party’s rise, its relationship with the regime and other parties, and its views on Islam and Islamism (Brown and Hamzawy 2010; Ullah 2014; Wegner 2011; Willis 2015). Few sources, however, dwell on its low electoral performance in rural areas; the only scholar to my knowledge working on the PJD’s rural disadvantages is David Goeury (2014), as part of a larger research project focusing on urbanism and elections in Morocco. Indeed, despite the party’s success, advanced organization, around the clock grassroots work, and charismatic leaders, the PJD has failed to win over the kingdom’s rural populations, which still vote for the old elite parties (the conservative, nationalist Istiqlal and the social-democratic Socialist Union of Popular Forces) and the administration-backed parties (Authenticity and Modernity, Constitutional Union, National Rally of Independents, and Popular Movement). This paper examines the PJD’s rural failure using data gathered during the author’s fieldwork in Morocco between 2013 and 2017, and drawing from personal interviews with partly leaders, election candidates, civil society members, and activists, as well as observations of campaigning and of vote polling during the 2016 legislative elections.

Figure 2 – Source: Author’s graph based on data from the Ministry of Interior.

An urban attraction

Despite regime restrictions (Maghraoui and Zerhouni 2014: 115-118; Abdel Ghafar and Jacobs, 2017; Kristianasen 2012), criticism from various civil society organizations as well as intellectuals (Dilami 2017),  and opposition by other parties (Puchot 2015), the PJD maintained significant support among the urban electorate. Former Prime Minister Benkirane’s (2011-2016) opinion poll ratings remained high throughout his first mandate – with 69 percent approval in 2013 and 62 percent in 2015 (Solutions 2015) – until King Mohammed VI replaced him by the PJD’s deputy leader, Saâdeddine El Othmani, following the 2016 elections deadlock. Indeed, on the eve of the 2016 legislative elections, 44.9 percent of Moroccans wanted Benkirane to have a second mandate as prime minister (Chambost 2016). In the legislative elections, the PJD obtained 22.8 percent of the votes in 2011, and 28 percent in 2016. In the 2015 communal elections, it obtained 25.6 percent (Ministry of the Interior).

Figure 3- Author’s graph based on data from the Ministry of Interior

Scholars point to several factors to explain the PJD’s electoral success and popular support. First, the party is attractive to a wide group of voters because of a combination of its Islamic credentials and its behavior as a normal political party (Mahgraoui and Zehrouni 2014: 113). Second, the PJD portrayed itself as more effective and honest than the administration-backed parties and more pragmatic than parties from the Left (Mahgraoui and Zehrouni 2014: 117-122). Furthermore, having only formally formed in 1998, and having been forced by the authorities to reduce its electoral candidates until 2007 (Kraetzschmar 2012: 29), the PJD’s credibility in the eyes of voters was intact when the Arab Spring struck (compared to parties like the Istiqlal and USFP, which were formally in government since the 1960s). It thus gained support from voters who identified with its brand of Islamism as well as from protestors who did not necessarily prefer Islamists in power but desired change.

A rural disadvantage

This reasoning explains the PJD’s recent success, but it does not shed light on the center-periphery discrepancy in its support base. Throughout its electoral history, the party’s successes (in the 2016, 2011, and 2002 elections) can be traced back to its support in major metropoles like Casablanca, whereas its failures (most strikingly in the 2007 and 2009 elections) were linked to its lack of support in rural areas. In the 2002 parliamentary elections, after claiming that it supported the introduction of Islamic law to the Moroccan political system but would also work within the existing system, the PJD presented itself in 56 districts and arrived third behind the USFP and Istiqlal parties (Mouline 2016). These were significant results as the party obtained 12.92 percent of the vote (only 2.46 percent less than the USFP, and 1.15 percent less than the Istiqlal) and 42 seats in parliament. In these elections, the PJD garnered strong support in cities but failed to elicit similar levels of support outside of them. In 2007, despite gerrymandering from the regime (Zaki 2009), the PJD came in second with 46 seats in parliament (behind the Istiqlal which obtained 52 seats). It is noteworthy that the PJD earned 10.9 percent of the vote, compared to the Istiqlal’s 10.7 percent, but still came in second because of its significant shortcomings in the rural areas.

It was after these elections that the PJD started to address its rural problem, by increasing its presence in rural areas via recruited members during the local elections of 2009. Despite these efforts, the party’s weak support in rural areas prevented it from winning any seat in the renewal elections of October 2009. The situation improved slightly during the 2011 (Arab Spring) elections when the PJD won a small number of seats in rural areas while maintaining its domination of urban districts. Compared to the precedent legislatives, the 2011 round saw a dramatic increase in PJD votes; the party earned 22.8 percent of the vote (far ahead of the second-place Istiqlal’s 11.9 percent) and 107 seats in parliament. This was consistent with the improved results from the following elections in 2016 in which the PJD received 18 additional seats and 27.88 percent of the vote.










Figure 4 – Author’s graph based on data from the Ministry of Interior

Explaining the PJD’s rural failure

Explanation I: The PJD’s problematic campaign strategy

In an interview, members of the PJD’s Central Elections Committee explained that PJD results in rural areas in 2011 were disappointing and posited that the party’s mistake in dealing with rural voters was that it did not have a different campaign strategy for rural and urban areas, and that its strategy targeted a specific class of voters. Indeed, since its entry to the country’s political scene, the PJD mainly targeted the middle class in large metropoles. These voters usually possess higher than average salaries and at least a high school education. This category of voters then mobilized a major part of the popular urban voters through charity-related and cultural efforts (Aït Akdim 2011; Smaoui 2009).

In preparation for the 2016 legislative elections, the PJD adopted a strategy targeting rural voters, by which it ensured a greater presence of PJD representatives in rural areas, and approached rural voters differently than voters in cities (Fanack Chronicle 2015). The latter move was inspired by the widely-accepted belief that urban and rural voters are different, and that they want different things from elected candidates (Chandra and Potter 2016; Baaklini, Denoeux and Springborg 1999; David Goeury 2014; Willis 2002). While urban voters generally want the national government to make complex structural changes that would decrease unemployment rates and ameliorate the education system, healthcare system, etc., rural voters tend to want their regional government to implement rural development reforms that would benefit their specific region (Aït Akdim 2011). Such reforms are more immediate and include developing the region’s infrastructure, building and manning hospitals and schools, ensuring clean water is available, etc. (Ibid; Tamin and Tozy 2010)

While it is true that rural voters want different things than urban ones, attributing the urban-rural divide in votes for the PJD to a faulty campaign strategy does not offer a satisfactory explanation. Having participated in parliamentary elections as early as 1997, the PJD would have quickly caught on to its rural disadvantage. After winning 8 seats in the 1997 parliamentary elections, and 42 in the 2002 parliamentary elections, the PJD surprisingly came behind the Istiqlal in 2007. While the PJD had won the popular vote, it obtained fewer seats than the Istqilal because the latter won more seats for less votes in rural areas (whereas the PJD won more votes for less seats in urban areas). As a direct result, and in preparation for the parliamentary by-elections of 2008 and the communal elections of 2009, the PJD increased its presence in rural areas through charity work and organized representatives. Yet, despite its efforts, it came in sixth with 5.5 percent of the vote and only 1,513 out of 27,795 seats in 2009. While the party came in first in the 2011 parliamentary elections, this was mainly due to its urban success. Its rural failure persisted through the 2015 communal elections and the 2016 parliamentary elections.

At the same time, from 2007 to 2016, the party has continuously reformed its campaign strategy to address this issue; it increased the presence of its representatives in rural areas, sent out famous PJD figures to hold events in various villages, encouraged members to talk to rural inhabitants directly about their problems, and asked urban PJD supporters who have rural origins to go out to their villages of origin and mobilize support for the party (Siraj 2009). During the 2016 campaign, for example, Prime Minister Benkirane held a forum on the topic of young people in the rural world in Ourika (a village located 30 km outside of the city of Marrakech) and invited close to 200 young PJD supporters from this area to participate in a debate on the issues facing the country’s rural populations. Also present were PJD ministers Aziz Rebbah et Driss Azam (Jaabouk 2016). In the 2016 campaign, Communications Minister Mustapha Al-Khalifa toured various villages in an effort to garner more rural support for the party. In Had Al-Aounate, a village 160 km outside of Casablanca, he went to the market and spoke to people about the party’s agenda (Ait-Akdim 2016).

Despite these efforts in 2016, the PJD’s electoral performance in rural areas remained the same. Although PJD members claim they transformed their campaign strategies in the rural areas, their 2016 efforts were actually remarkably similar to those of precedent years, albeit more intense. Overall, the PJD has not been changing its rural strategies beyond talking to rural inhabitants about a different set of issues than they do to urban inhabitants. The party’s dependence on now-urban workers with rural origins to campaign for them is also problematic, especially given that the PJD does not have a consistent local presence in many of these rural regions during the year, only making itself known to many inhabitants before the elections. The party’s mostly-static strategies in the rural world are confounding. It is hard to imagine that, during the decade between the 2007 and 2016 elections, the PJD was not able to pinpoint the supposed flaw in its campaign behavior or that it did not observe what other parties have been doing right. The fact that the PJD has barely changed its campaign strategy in these areas suggests that the latter are not to blame for its failure. In interviews, when I have pressed on this question, PJD officials do not offer an explanation beyond foul play against the PJD and potential bribery of rural voters. Thus, while its campaign strategy might be a factor, it is not the main reason why the PJD cannot obtain more rural votes.

Explanation II: An extension of the palace-PJD divide

The logic behind the PJD’s continuous attempts to reform its strategy is significant; rural and urban voters are different, especially because of the types of reforms that they want and how they perceive the process of implementing reform. Rural voters want rural development reforms in their region and vote for parties in the coalition and that side with the regime, because they believe that parties in the opposition would not be able to implement these reforms (Aït Akdim 2011). Furthermore, historical analysis shows that rural populations in Morocco tend to side with the regime. Because of the relationships among rural elites and the regime, rural populations have historically supported the latter (Levau1985). Specifically, following the country’s independence in 1956, rural elites – because they wanted to atone for having accepted or partnered with the Protectorate – sided with Mohammed V to protect themselves from the rival and vengeful urban bourgeoisie. The administration, in turn, depended on these rural elites to police and stabilize the rural populations and garner support. These elites thus mobilize large-scale support for the regime in political matters, most notably, voting. In exchange, they receive resources, political favors, and protection against agrarian reforms proposed by the urban bourgeoisie (Ibid; Willis 2002).

Rural elites, then, mobilize votes in favor of the administration as they have no motivation to change the status quo, and many rural voters see parties backed by the administration as potentially more effective. As a result, administration-backed parties such as the PAM and the RNI are more popular in rural areas, whereas the PJD is viewed as a party that opposes the administration (even though the party has never, since rising to power, directly opposed it). In the same way urban voters vote for the PJD because they perceive it as the only party that can stand up to the regime, rural populations vote against the PJD for this very reason. Be they elites or masses, these particular rural voters believe that they would benefit more from the administration (with its preferred parties) in power, than from the PJD.

The bigger picture: What the PJD’s rural failure means for Morocco’s nascent democratic path

The predisposition of rural populations to vote for administration-backed parties and for parties that are not part of the opposition has impacts that reach beyond the PJD or any single party. This phenomenon’s implication is that any party not backed by the regime will most likely not gain votes in rural areas and will thus lose an important number of seats to administration-backed parties. If the rural populations’ electoral behavior persists, it would follow that parties not supported by the administration will not gain enough seats to take control of the government.

Keeping this last point in mind, if we look beyond the PJD’s successes and failures, and focus on the bigger picture, i.e. Morocco’s nascent democratic process, the problem is no longer faulty campaigning, or even the rural voters and their electoral predispositions; the problem is Morocco’s electoral system. This system allows administration-backed parties like the RNI, the UC, and the PAM to compete with and restrain other parties (Santucci 2006). Thus, while elections in Morocco have been substantially more free and fair over the last three elections, they maintain the administration’s control over other actors and its domination of the political scene (Zaki 2009; Catusse 2005).

Overrepresentation of the rural vote, and the rural bias for the administration

This is because Morocco’s electoral system underrepresents urban areas and over-represents rural ones. The minimum number of seats in government per electoral district is two, often making the least-populated electoral districts over-represented compared to densely-populated ones. For instance, Fahs-Anjra, a province that spans 799 square kilometers and has a population of 76,447 inhabitants, elects two representatives, each of which thus represents 38,224 people. By comparison, the national representation mean is 110,196 per representative; and the densely populated Casablanca Anfa elects 4 representatives for about 497,000 people, meaning each one represents some 124,000 people. The rural representation range is 38,000 to 80,00 inhabitants per seat, while the urban range is 120,000 to 150,000 00 inhabitants per seat (López García and Hernando de Larramendi 2017). This explains why, in 2007, the PJD won the popular vote, as more people voted for it in urban areas, and only came in sixth in terms of seats. The electoral system solidifies the administration’s control over elections and politics because it over-represents rural areas that favor administration-backed parties.


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The Persistent Rural Failure of Morocco’s Justice and Development Party