A Government of the Opposition: How Moroccan Islamists’ Dual Role Contributes to their Electoral Success

Quinn Mecham, Brigham Young University

*This memo was originally drafted as a part of the Adaptation Strategies of Islamist Parties and Movements  workshop held at George Washington University January 27, 2017. POMEPS Studies 26 is a collection of the memos from this workshop, available as an open-access PDF here.

Participatory Islamist movements have been under enormous pressure throughout the Arab world since 2013. This pressure has come both from resurgent authoritarianism in the Arab world, including the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, and from an increasing radicalization of Islamist discourse, epitomized by the growth and success of the Islamic State movement in Iraq and Syria.

In this challenging environment, it is unusual for an Islamist party to improve upon the initial electoral successes scored in the wake of the Arab uprisings. However, that is just what the Justice and Development Party of Morocco (PJD) managed to do in the Moroccan elections of October 2016. The party’s remarkable repeated electoral success is largely due to its ability to act in the strange role of a governing opposition movement, perceived by voters as being both in and out of power simultaneously. It was able to increase its vote share in 2016, because it captured both voters who supported its political record and protest voters frustrated with the monarchy. The reasons for Moroccan Islamists’ recent electoral success reveal a number of important lessons for Islamist parties in other parts of the Arab world, including their potential to play a role in both governance and opposition at the same time.

The PJD’s success in 2011 elections, organized in the wake of Morocco’s vigorous anti-regime protest movement, saw its electoral returns jump from the 11 percent in 2007 to 23 percent in November 2011. The PJD was able to more than double its vote percentage in 2011 largely because of the domestic and regional political climate of protest in which the PJD emerged as the most plausible, electable opposition to the palace. Because of changes to the Moroccan constitution that had been approved prior to the 2011 election, Moroccan King Mohammed VI was constitutionally required to appoint the head of the PJD (as the largest party in parliament) prime minister and to invite him to form a governing coalition.

Abdelilah Benkirane of the PJD thus became the Moroccan Prime Minister in 2012 and presided over a coalition government, in multiple incarnations, for five years of comparative political stability within a turbulent region. Despite aggressive campaigning and organized protests against the PJD, the party further increased its electoral returns in October 2016, taking 28 percent of the vote and adding 18 seats to its parliamentary roster. Prime Minister Benkirane was again asked by the king to form a government for the next five years. Although the king dismissed Benkirane for failing to form a governing coalition, he did replace him with another leader of the PJD. Saad Eddine El Othmani successfully negotiated a coalition government in March 2017, allowing the party to remain at the head of government for the foreseeable future.

The consolidation and expansion of the PJD’s electoral constituency is unusual for Islamist parties in the Arab world in the current political environment. Although the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) has been banned and the group actively repressed, public opinion evidence from its period in power suggested that it lost a considerable amount of support during its time in office.[1] In a closer comparison, Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party, which won Tunisia’s first free elections in October 2011 elections with 37 percent of the vote, subsequently lost political ground in 2014, taking 28 percent of the vote and losing control of the government. These outcomes are in line with hypotheses that suggest Islamists are likely to lose support after they enter government because they are unable to maintain the protest vote that often helps to propel their electoral success.[2]

Why then did the PJD do unusually well in recent elections given trends elsewhere in the Arab world? There are several possibilities. While it is plausible to believe that the PJD’s success in government or the fractured political opposition it faced positively impacted its renewed electoral success, I believe that its remarkable ability to retain protest voters despite its position at the head of government has had the largest impact on the PJD’s recent electoral success.

Argument 1: The PJD government was comparatively successful 

First, one potential reason for the PJD’s success is that during the party’s five years as the head of government it demonstrated a track-record of good governance that voters observed and rewarded at the ballot box. There is some plausibility to this claim if one considers Morocco in a comparative regional context, where good governance and political stability have been scarce. Morocco’s political challenges over the past five years have been relatively tame compared to the upheavals elsewhere in the Arab world. Additionally, the government did succeed in accomplishing some necessary economic reforms, including phasing out subsidies on basic goods and working towards the solvency of the pension system by raising the retirement age. Under the PJD, Morocco likewise saw an increase in international investment, with the GDP growth rate averaging about 4 percent and hitting 5 percent just prior to the election in 2015. During the 2016 campaign, each PJD minister made a video of the achievements of their ministry and disseminated it on social media, making the case that this was a high-performing government worth re-electing.

However, the government’s successes comes with caveats. First, its economic reforms, such as removing basic subsidies, are not the kind of accomplishments normally popular with the electorate. It is widely acknowledged that the PJD has been unable to make much progress on a key 2011 campaign pledge to take on Morocco’s pervasive corruption. Economic reform efforts triggered a mass trade union rally against the government in May 2012, and subsequently led to the defection of a key coalition partner  – the conservative monarchist Istiqlal party – from the government. Likewise, the government’s opponents have been critical of its perceived conservative social positions. During much of the government’s tenure, political wrangling and divisive threats from other legislative parties contributed to a perception of gridlock and inefficacy in the legislature.[3] Low turnout in the October 2016 election may also suggest that voters were not overly enthusiastic about weighing in on the government’s accomplishments.[4]

Argument 2: There was no other unified opposition

A second plausible reason that the PJD dominated the 2016 elections is that it faced a weak and divided opposition unable to mount an effective challenge. Morocco’s party system is highly fragmented and its low electoral threshold makes it easy for small parties to win seats (14 parties won seats in 2011, and 12 won seats in 2016). Compared with many of its opponents, the PJD also has more extensive ground support in getting out the vote.[5] Furthermore, Moroccan parties, like many Middle Eastern parties, are often highly personalized and politicians use their positions to acquire government resources to distribute locally in the form of patronage towards their constituents. Because most government resources are acquired through relationships with the makhzen (royal court and well-connected associates of the palace), it is unsurprising that the many small parties are more interested in currying favor with the monarchy than with the articulation of a compelling policy platform.

However, the PJD still had some important and well-resourced competitors. Founded in 2008 by close friend of the king Fouad Ali El-Himma, the Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM), is widely seen as a vehicle for the monarchy’s interests in the legislature and mounted a major campaign challenge against the Islamists. Despite the King’s insistence on his political neutrality, the PAM had substantial if informal royal support and was considered a plausible winner of the 2016 election. In the end, PAM received 21 percent of the vote, doubling its 2008 returns with a campaign designed to negatively brand and discredit the PJD, trying to mirror the successes of the old regime secularists during the Tunisian election of 2014.

Other parties also maintained royalist interests and benefitted from substantial political resources, including Istiqlal, the Popular Movement (MP) and the National Rally of Independents (RNI), although they each lost seats compared with their 2011 performance. The PJD had a particularly difficult time breaking into constituencies dominated by established patronage networks in rural Morocco, which disproportionately vote for these royalist-oriented parties. After the October 2016 election, the party also faced renewed opposition from several parties unwilling to form a coalition government without significant political compromises.

Argument 3: The PJD still represents a protest vote

A more compelling, if counterintuitive, argument for why the PJD increased its vote share is its ability to act as a credible opposition, even while in government.   Because of the perceived structural dominance of the monarchy over the legislature, the PJD is still seen as an outsider despite its role as the dominant governing party. As in quantum mechanics, in which objects can simultaneously manifest characteristics of both particles and waves, the PJD acts simultaneously as the head of government and as the perceived head of the opposition. It can do so because the legislature is both credibly chosen through free elections and politically weak. Therefore, the PJD can avoid being held accountable for the government’s failures (such as its inability to tackle corruption) because it doesn’t have full control, while simultaneously being seen as a potential check on the monarchy’s abuses.

Most of the PJD’s less successful parliamentary competitors have significant ties to the monarchy. These royalist parties, as well as the King, often see the PJD as acting against their interests, particularly in the party’s continued focus on stemming the corruption surrounding patronage politics and in strengthening the rule of law.[6] Therefore, the presence of an Islamist prime minister, who has sometimes demonstrated his unwillingness to act at the behest of the makhzen, is perceived as an important check on authoritarianism. Other, more strident opposition movements, including the popular Justice and Charity movement, may be seen as having stronger opposition credentials, but they have much more limited potential to influence the day-to-day affairs of the state and therefore act as less of a check on the regime.

Despite oft-cited criticisms that the PJD has sold out to the state and has no meaningful power, its presence at the forefront of the legislature remains appealing to many voters. Because the Moroccan system requires the leading party to form a coalition government, the governing coalition is seen as more representative of Moroccan society’s interests than is the monarchy alone. Through the compromises that the PJD makes to remain in government (acceptance of the monarchy, building broad coalitions, etc.), its interests are also not particularly removed from mainstream politics. This ensures it remains close enough to the political center to capture a significant percentage of mainstream voters. This carries a risk that the party will lose its core supporters, but unless these supporters have other electoral options closer to their ideological preferences (which is not yet the case), the PJD also remains the most plausible party for Islamist voters to support.

PJD voters are predominantly urban, upwardly mobile, and frustrated with their inability to break into networks of the social and economic elite. They have been described as “part of a rising social class…suffocated by the traditional elites’ grip on politics and the economy.”[7] In this respect, the party’s liminal status (both in and out of power) reflects its voters’ own liminal status, situated tantalizingly close, yet still removed, from social and economic power. It is plausible, therefore, that many PJD voters continue to vote for the party because they see it as a way to protest against elite dominance, hoping that the PJD can act as an agent of change.

The PJD’s ability to be both within and without the political system simultaneously is due in large part to the peculiarities of the Moroccan political system, including a power imbalance between the monarchy and the legislature, coupled with a political culture that supports reasonably free elections. Morocco has a freer political climate than most countries of the Arab world, with a substantial percentage of citizens who believe that they are free to criticize the government (68 percent),[8] but also a legislature with limited efficacy. If the legislature had more power, the PJD could easily be perceived as a threat to the regime and face a difficult road into government. If elections were less free, whatever representation in parliament it could muster would be considered less credible and less capable of representing its constituents’ interests. The PJD has been deft at walking the fine line between being both a challenge to and a collaborator with the monarchy, but it has been aided by a political structure that allows for that path.

How does Morocco’s PJD compare to other Islamist parties in the region?

The peculiarities of the Moroccan system, however, are not as removed from the contexts of other Arab Islamist parties as might initially be believed. Similar types of institutional arrangements have echoes in a number of Arab countries, making the PJD’s electoral success relevant throughout much of the Arab world. In monarchies with weak legislatures and reasonably free elections, such as Jordan and Kuwait, the Islamic Action Front and the Islamic Constitutional Movement, respectively, have opportunities to walk a similarly fine line between government and opposition. In both cases, the important role of political independents makes the party systems weaker than in Morocco, but Islamist parties or blocs remain the most influential single grouping in parliament.

Even in non-monarchies comparable institutional arrangements can exist. The military in Algeria or in Egypt provide another version of an unelected governing establishment, in which free elections for constrained legislatures could develop. This was the case after Algerian local elections in 1990 and after Egyptian national elections of 2011-12 (prior to military coups d’état in both countries). In both cases, Islamists played a similar role in both participating in and simultaneously acting as a check on government. Hezbollah in Lebanon has also managed to serve both simultaneously in government and opposition, not only participating in the parliament and cabinet but also mobilizing its constituents in opposition to the state, which it cannot constitutionally lead.

In less comparable, parliament-dominated political systems, such as Tunisia or Iraq, Islamist parties may still find ways to participate in a governing coalition while serving as a focal point for political opposition. Ennahda’s politically difficult decision to join a unity government in Tunisia in 2015, holding the unenviable Ministry of Employment, gave it a voice in government, while still allowing it to bear the mantle of the Tunisian political opposition. Its decision to participate in a government over which it had little influence signaled to the electorate that it would compromise in order work within the political system. As in the Moroccan case, it is unlikely that the electorate will hold Ennahda accountable for the government’s inevitable failures, but its coalition participation maintains the party’s visibility as potential future check on the controversial policies of a government perceived as tied to the old regime.

This dual role could potentially be played by centrist Iraqi Sunni Islamists, or even Bahraini Shi’i Islamists, under conditions in which the government or monarchy of these countries felt politically secure enough to allow these groups free political participation. Additionally, in political systems, unlike the Moroccan case, where power is not shared across national political institutions, Islamist parties may be able to play both in-and-out roles by holding office at regional or municipal levels.

The contemporary political climate in the Arab world has been difficult for Islamist political parties to navigate, but the PJD’s experience in Morocco shows a potential pathway to iterated electoral success. This pathway is defined by the party’s delicate navigation of a constrained (or hybrid) political regime that also possesses a measure of institutional complexity. That institutional complexity allows Islamist parties to obtain a measure of power in one or more political institutions, without threatening the nature of the political system as a whole. While this pathway will have its detractors among committed activists and ideologues, it maintains the advantage of being both politically relevant to the electorate and allowing the party to retain political options. In a world of semi-democratic regimes, the future of Islamist parties may therefore become one in which they must learn to play the role of both opposition and government, benefitting from both roles simultaneously.

Quinn Mecham is an assistant professor of political science at Brigham Young University. He is the author of “Institutional Origins of Islamist Political Mobilization” (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

[1] “Spring 2014 Global Attitudes Survey,” Pew Research Center, May 21, 2014.

[2] Mecham, Quinn. 2014. “Islamist Parties as Strategic Actors: Electoral Participation and its Consequences,” Chapter 1 in Islamist Parties and Political Normalization in the Muslim World, Quinn Mecham and Julie Chernov Hwang, eds. University of Pennsylvania Press.

[3] Chalfaouat, Adberrahim. 2016. “What Moroccan Government’s Shortcomings Mean for Post-Election Coalitions,” (October 5) Al-Monitor.

[4] El-Amraoui, Ahmed. 2016. “Moroccan elections: disappointing voter turnout,” Al-Jazeera News, 7 October.

[5] Mahon, Mark. 2016. “Moroccan Elections: After the Turnout,” Morocco World News, 12 October.

[6] In a 2015 survey, 60 percent of Moroccans believe that the government is sincere or very sincere in tackling corruption. This implies that the government is seen by many as a challenge to corrupt practices, but also that some doubt how far it is willing to go. See the “Arab Opinion Index 2015,” Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, Doha, Qatar.

[7] Fabiani, Riccardo. 2016. “Hollow Rivalry in Morocco’s Upcoming Elections,” (September 22), Sada, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

[8] “Arab Opinion Index 2015,” Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, Doha, Qatar.