The Party of Justice and Development and municipal elections in Morocco

Janine A. Clark, University of Guelph*

Analyses of Islamist political parties focus overwhelmingly on their performance in national elections, largely neglecting municipal elections. Yet, at the municipal level, Islamists often face a different set of opportunities and impediments, arising from national political agendas, directives of the party’s central leadership, and local contexts. Examining the electoral strategies of municipal branches of Islamist parties allows us to better understand not only the diversity of Islamist electoral strategies as they implement national discourses and party directives while competing for power at the local level and how but also why they succeed electorally.

In this memo, I examine the electoral strategies of Morocco’s Party of Justice and Development (PJD) in three municipalities during the 2009 municipal elections. Illustrating the diverse responses of PJD branches to national discourses and party directives, I specifically focus on how they seek to overcome influential local patrons. Those PJD branches that successfully overthrew long-established patrons adopted electoral strategies not only took advantage of the regime’s good governance agenda but essentially mimicked or reproduced the key elements of a patron-client relationship, namely the appearance of closeness to the regime, candidates with prestige and clout, and close individual ties to voters based on competent civil society organization (CSO) work.

The three municipalities examined are: Chefchaouen (capital of the northwest province of Chefchaouen), Erfoud (located in the Saharan province of Errachidia in the east), and Tiflet (located 70 kilometers east of Morocco’s capital, Rabat). In all three, the PJD competed with long-standing patrons for political power. In Chefchaouen, the PJD confronted a mayor who had ruled the municipality since 1982 (with the brief exception of 1994-1997) and was simultaneously a member of parliament (MP). In Tiflet, two competing families have dominated the council since the 1970s. Similarly in Erfoud, the parties of the elite families have dominated the councils for decades. In two municipalities, Chefchaouen and Erfoud, the local branches of the PJD won the position of mayor for the first time in 2009, while the Tiflet branch won neither the mayoralty nor seats in the executive bureaus of the 2009 municipal council. Chefchaouen and Tiflet, are urban municipalities (with populations over 35,000) and use a proportional list system for municipal elections; in 2009, Erfoud was a rural municipality and consequently employed the more candidate-centric majoritarian electoral system, which favors local patrons. I chose to focus on the 2009 elections because it was the last municipal election during which the PJD was broadly considered the country’s only opposition party. Since 2011, the PJD has held the position of prime minister and headed the government; most analysts now consider it a co-opted party.

The 2009 Municipal Elections

In Morocco’s municipal elections, Islamists’ greatest political competition most commonly comes from powerful local notables/patrons representing pro-regime parties and elected by dense networks of loyal clients. In this context, voting primarily revolves around personal ties and access to state resources. An ideologically-based opposition party, the PJD is at a disadvantage as voter-clients either perceive it as lacking the necessary connections to the regime to address their needs or are too fearful to defect from their patrons. Furthermore, PJD members commonly lack the historical personal ties to families or individuals in their municipalities that patron-families often have had for generations.

In 2009, Islamists competed in an electoral context shaped by three dominant factors: 1) the regime’s good governance agenda as reflected in Morocco’s municipal charters granting CSO-activists a greater role in municipal decision-making; 2) the proliferation of CSOs and activists seeking to take advantage of the charter’s provisions; and 3) the 2003 Casablanca bombings, which damaged the PJD, prompting the party to adopt the monarchy’s good governance discourse.

Beginning with King Mohammed VI ascension to power in 1999, the monarchy has pursued a neoliberal agenda of good governance including decentralization, participatory government, and local development. The 2002 municipal charter reflected this by enlarging the decision-making purview of municipal councils and charging them with creating and aiding CSOs to encourage local development. Building on the 2002 charter, the 2009 municipal charter requires all municipalities to establish consultative councils comprising CSO-members and, based on their feedback, create a local development plan. Partnering with CSOs thus has become part of the official discourse in Morocco. Despite regime attempts to control and penetrate civil society, its discourse and initiatives have resulted in the rise of politically-independent, largely technocratic CSO-activists throughout the country who expect to play a role in municipal decision-making.

Following the 2003 Casablanca bombings that killed dozens of civilians, the monarchy and several political parties accused the PJD of moral culpability for the attacks and called for its dissolution. The PJD responded by falling in line with the regime’s good governance agenda. Seemingly viewing its social conservatism and focus on religiously-defined moral issues as liabilities in the wake of the attacks, the PJD replaced its religious rhetoric with that of human rights, democracy, pluralism and rule of law. The party began emphasizing its technocratic expertise and focusing more diligently on drafting and proposing bills in parliament.

The PJD’s new discourse was quickly adopted at the municipal level where PJD branches began focusing on three interrelated themes (Catusse and Zaki 2010). First, a managerial approach to governing, promoting itself as having the managerial skills and technical savvy to successfully get results. Second, the euphemization of its relationship to Islam. Rather than social morality, the PJD spoke of the need to “moralize the management of public affairs” (Wegner 2011: 111). Third, a focus on addressing citizens’ daily problems, stressing its “personalized ‘social and institutional mediation’ with voters” (Catusse and Zaki 2010).

Chefchaouen and Erfoud

Operating within this context, PJD branches adopted different electoral strategies to overcome their disappointing performances in the 2003 municipal elections that followed the Casablanca bombings. In Chefchaouen and Erfoud, the two branches pursued two complementary strategies. The first was to put the party’s good governance discourse into practice by transforming the branch-parties into parties in service of civil society. They instructed their members to work in CSOs, prioritized CSO activists as candidates and coalition partners, and, once in power, elevated CSO activists and their concerns as hallmarks of municipal politics. By doing so, PJD members effectively enlisted CSO-activists in their bid for political power, particularly those frustrated with pro-regime patrons/incumbents who claimed to represent civil society simply by sitting on committees supposedly designed to bring CSO-voices into municipal decision-making (Bergh 2017; Clark forthcoming). Furthermore, by working with and in CSOs, PJD-members members concurrently demonstrated their managerial competence and developed individual ties with CSO “clients.” Second, both branches chose mayoral candidates who could counterbalance local patrons in terms of social and/or economic prestige. These dual strategies enabled the PJD to demonstrate clear affinity with the regime and its proclaimed values of good governance, boost the party’s electoral chances, and develop close individual ties with a broad base of non-members/non-sympathizers.

In both Chefchaouen and Erfoud, the PJD branches interpreted the party’s broad national policy of working with civil society expressly in terms of working with non-Islamist CSOs. As a 2009 PJD councilor in Chefchaouen stated in a 2012 personal interview with the author:

The PJD is in all sorts of associations, not just PJD-affiliated ones… we chose this strategy. It is more useful to be spread out. The Party only said that it is important to be active in civil society, the members have the liberty to join whatever they want.

In both cases, their local strategies of “mixing” with CSOs enabled their members to not only come into contact with a far broader audience or clientele but also forge ties with the country’s new technocratic CSO-activists as electoral coalition partners. The Chefchaouen electoral list, for example, was a fusion between PJD members and CSO-activists who had originally created an independent list under a well-known CSO activist, Mohammad Sefiani. The PJD furthermore put Sefiani – neither a PJD member nor sympathizer – at the head of its list to send a clear message that the PJD was, as Sefiani told me in an interview, “open to civil society.” Central to the coalition between the PJD and Sefiani was the shared understanding – as demonstrated by their joint CSO-work – that the PJD would respect the charter and ensure that CSO activists were granted a greater role in municipal decision-making (which it did, in fact, do).

Erfoud’s PJD members similarly entered a spectrum of CSOs. While the Erfoud PJD had already established several associations “close” to the party, following 2003, party members made a concerted effort to work in a variety of politically independent CSOs, allowing the population to get to know the PJD members and, as the former mayor said to me, their “good behavior from their work in associations.” A former PJD councilor explained in an interview:

More people now know that the PJD is not dangerous. There has been a huge change in mentality. The population now knows that the PJD members are good and honest and do good work. This is because PJD started serious work in the social field, in associations

As in Chefchaouen, the Erfoud branch not only prioritized those members with associational experiences for its electoral candidates but also created pre-electoral coalitions with non-PJD CSO-activists. The PJD ran in all but one of Erfoud’s electoral districts and made a pre-election agreement with one United Socialist Party (USP) candidate (out of seven). The USP candidate agreed to work with the PJD should it win; in return, the PJD agreed not run in his district. When asked why he was approached to be in a PJD-coalition, the USP member responded that the primary reason was his CSO- and union activism, through which he was well-known and experienced. Second, were his “good ideas” – which the PJD members knew from their CSO work with him. Third, his presence demonstrated that the party was “not ideological”.

The second prong of the Chefchaouen and Erfoud branches’ electoral strategies was to seek mayoral candidates who could counter the political weight and patronage of previous mayors. As one 2009 Chefchaouen PJD councilor expressed to me:

The PJD had to have a strong list so that people would believe it could win against a minister, someone very powerful with lots of lands and who has support of other landowners. So [we] needed a strong list to convince people they could do it. People feared revenge… because, of course, if you fight against a minister, you better win.

In Sefiani, the Chefchaouen PJD had found a social counter-weight to the previous mayor/MP by capitalizing on the respect garnered by his profession as an engineer in a large well-respected international company. As the previously quoted PJD councilor continued, “If you want to substitute a minister you cannot do it with someone who is just a teacher.” Similarly, in Erfoud, the mayor became a MP prior to running again for mayor – a highly unusual reversal of the pattern in which candidates generally seek the mayoralty in order to become an MP. Having lost the 2002 parliamentary elections and the 2003 municipal elections, the soon-to-be mayor won the 2007 parliamentary elections and was then able to bring his institutional authority and proximity to power as an MP to bear in the 2009 municipal elections.


In Tiflet, the local PJD adopted a different strategy while still remaining within the national party’s focus on good governance and civil society. While Tiflet PJD members were members in a variety of associations with no affiliation to the PJD, the branch’s primary electoral strategy focused on organizing neighborhood associations representing each area’s respective needs. When this strategy failed, they established a neighborhood committee to gather citizens’ concerns and bring them to the municipal council. This was supplemented by members going door-to-door introducing themselves and the party. Party members thus sought to create new CSOs independent of both existing patrons and existing CSOs and to act as conduits between citizens, CSOs and the municipal council – demonstrating their competency and closeness to the population differently than in Chefchaouen and Erfoud.

Though the Tiflet branch’s strategy brought it more seats, it failed to make significant inroads in a population divided between two patron-families. While its lack of electoral success cannot be fully attributed to its electoral strategies, it is instructive to note that it did not mimic a patron-client relationship. While its strategies brought PJD-members in closer contact with the population, the branch neither reinforced its affinity with the regime’s discourse (and consequently its access to resources) nor included other CSO-activists with whom they could further demonstrate their good governance agenda and forge pre-electoral coalitions. With the head of the list also not well known, the PJD list also had no “counterweight” to the established patrons; it could not demonstrate its ability to win or effectively replace existing patrons.


An examination of the PJD-electoral strategies in the 2009 elections demonstrates how different PJD branches put the party’s good governance agenda into practice. Indeed, this examination demonstrates the flexibility of the party and points to one of the possible explanations for Islamists’ electoral successes even when their religious-based ideologies are liabilities vis-à-vis the public’s perception. In keeping with the party’s good governance discourse, all three branches turned their attentions to CSO-activism, yet the details of this activism were left to the branches.

This examination furthermore demonstrates how the PJD was able to defeat pro-regime incumbents while remaining within and simultaneously exploiting the regime’s neoliberal good governance agenda. Successful branches effectively used CSO-actors – themselves largely products of the regime’s good governance agenda – to jointly oust pro-regime patrons from power. They did so by demonstrating their commitment to the values of good governance through their joint CSO-activism and by upholding the opportunities for CSO-actors in the municipal charter and enlisting CSO-activists as coalition partners

Finally, this examination of the PJD indicates how the party branches won against local patrons by reproducing key elements of the patron-client relationship and the success of these relationships in bringing patrons to power. In Chefchaouen and Erfoud, the branches not only shared power with CSO-activists but also leveraged this relationship to essentially mimic the patron-client relationship: demonstrating an affinity with the regime, selecting a mayor with local prestige, and creating personal ties through CSO-work.

* The study is based on a larger research project, see Clark, Local Politics in Jordan and Morocco (Columbia UP, forthcoming). I would like to gratefully acknowledge Emanuela Dalmasso for her help in the research for this study.