Moroccan elections: A reason for EU concern?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

While the fears of an Islamist takeover in Morocco are overblown, the EU must in any event be willing show its faith in democracy by working with whichever political forces emerge from free elections, argues Daniel Novotný.

This commentary was sent exclusively to EURACTIV by Dr Daniel Novotný, a political scientist specialising in EU foreign policy and the international relations of Asia. He is a member of the Prague-based Association for International Affairs and is the editor of the 'EU External Affairs Review'.

"On 25 November, Moroccans will go to the polls to cast their historic vote in what will be the first parliamentary elections in the country since the Arab Spring began, following the adoption of broad constitutional reforms in July. The results of the elections in Morocco, the first country to enjoy an advanced status in its relations with the EU, will be closely watched in Brussels.

Taking place only a month after Tunisia, birthplace of the Arab Spring movement, handed power to a previously banned party of moderate Islamists, should Europe be concerned about another Islamist party scoring a landslide victory in legislative elections in Morocco?

Contrary to the general trend sweeping the Arab world that challenged ruling elites and wreaked havoc with the economic and social fabric of many of the region's nations, in the Kingdom's 'soft' democratic transition, the Moroccan people have not sought to depose the greatly revered King Mohammed VI.

Even as pro-democratic demonstrations around Morocco reached their peak earlier this year, young protestors never questioned the legitimacy of the king and the Alawite monarchy as a whole. As a matter of fact, accepting their demands for democratisation and more social justice as legitimate, the king proposed a comprehensive constitutional reform.

It is clear what Moroccan voters expect from the elections: They desire a transparent political system and a democratically elected government capable of delivering significant political, social and, above all, economic changes. To that end, Morocco has been hailed by senior EU figures as a leader in the Arab world in terms of implementing political reforms and sustaining social and economic stability.

Yet, while stressing the importance of the coming elections for the whole region, EU policymakers privately fret about what a potentially Islamist-led government in Rabat would mean for Europe and its security in the near and medium term.

First of all, the idea that Morocco's Islamist Justice and Development Party, the PJD, is poised for an overwhelming victory should not be taken for granted. This speculation heavily draws on a would-be analogy with the recent Tunisian experience in which the Islamist Ennahda Party emerged as a clear election winner.

However, it is misleading to compare the PJD to Tunisia's Ennahda: while Ennahda, which was banned by Ben Ali's regime, symbolises the end of the old order, the PJD has been actively participating in Morocco's comparatively more open political system for years. Ennahda gained Tunisian voters' confidence because it has embodied the staunch opposition long directed against Ben Ali's hated regime and also because it has never been involved in government, a fact that further boosted its credibility.

By contrast, the PJD is a well-entrenched force in the Moroccan political landscape and its previous performance has not always been without controversy. A case in point was the PJD's secretary-general's publically expressed opposition to the declaration of Berber as a national language in the new constitution.

The recognition of Berber, or Amazigh, as a national language and the provisions guaranteeing greater gender equality and representation in the new parliament of candidates under the age of 35 are all welcome democratic developments. It is hardly surprising that, in the context of the cultural and religious heterogeneity of Moroccan population and Berber activism, youth and Berber organisations as well as the 20th February Movement denounced the PJD's position vis-à-vis this particular aspect of the reform as hostile and unacceptable.

And even if the PJD were to become the strongest party in the new parliament, the reality is that it will not be able to wield political power in its own right. Since the PJD is unlikely to have a clear majority, it will be forced to form a coalition with its secular rivals, namely the eight-party Coalition for Democracy. In light of Morocco's complex proportional representational system that tends to produce fractured parliaments with an array of political parties, it is far from certain whether the PJD would be able to assemble a workable governing coalition.

For its part, Europe must show Morocco that 'democracy pays' and it should support whatever party wins the parliamentary election this Friday. Ultimately, the EU needs to work with the new government to consolidate and further develop EU-Morocco relations and show unconditional solidarity with the Moroccan people by providing unwavering, sizable support for the country's civil society."

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