Natalia Sancha
PJD, the King and Elite Pluralization

“Moroccans vote, The King rules” (Popular saying in Morocco)
Absenteeism in 2007 legislative Moroccan elections: 63 per cent

Specialists faced difficulties explaining the ‘unexpected’ low performance of the Parti de la Justice et du Développement (PJD) in the 2007 Moroccan legislative elections. This paper’s overarching concern is to gain a better grasp of the performance of the PJD in the 2007 elections.


Seats Istiqlal Party (IP) PJD USFP
2002                              48  42    50
2007                              52  46     36

The results of the September 2007 legislative Moroccan elections contrast sharply with the expectations of the PJD and the predictions of many analysts. After the impressive performance of the PJD, in which it increased its number of seats from 9 in 1997 to 42 in the 2002 elections, the PJD ‘only’ won four additional seats in 2007; it now has a total of 46 seats out of the 325 seats in the House of Representatives chamber.
The PJD, however, were expected to win 70 to 80 seats. While the PJD won the popular vote with 13 per cent of ballots cast (545 636), the Istiqlal Party won in terms of seats (see table). The biggest loser were the parties of the left, particularly the Union Socialiste des Forces Populaires (USFP) which lost 14 seats. The left’s loss could be explained by serious internal divisions.
The historically low electoral participation only reached 37 per cent, 20 points less than the turnout in the 2002 elections. The participation rate was higher in rural areas (40 per cent) than in urban regions (30 per cent). It seems that the PJD’s supporters are mostly urban middle class, they have accordingly won votes in the big cities and their peripheries like Casablanca and Tangiers.
Specialists faced difficulties explaining the PJD’s ‘unexpected’ low performance in the 2007 elections. They have resorted to a number of explanations that could be grouped together into five main variables. The first two focus on the institutional electoral regulations, which define the rules of the game. They highlight two main procedures; the regime’s gerrymandering in the reform of districting and the new system of proportional lists from 2002. The third variable is the low voter turnout and the high number of ‘spoiled ballots’, which reflects the dynamics of society/state relations that shows a lack of trust in the electoral system. The fourth variable tends to look at the PJD’s lack of sufficient skill as a political party. The fifth and final variable explains the PJD’s low performance as a result of the fragmentation in the political arena. By focusing on these five different variables, these scholars try to explain the PJD’s ‘failure’.

Electoral Districts

The first explanation points to the new electoral law and the associated practice of gerrymandering. The number of districts has increased to 95 (from 91 in 2002) and favor the rural and semi-urban zones where Islamists have little power and the Istiqlal Party (IP) has a strong presence. We can not deny the impact that such geographical distributions of votes have on the outcome of the PJD’s performance in the elections; yet, such a distribution was clearly stated before the elections and the PJD should have taken this factor into consideration. Moreover, some scholars expected that 20 per cent of the total votes is the maximum that a party could win under such a geographical distribution. In particular, Amin Allal, a PhD student at Hassan II University, uses the case of Tangiers to explain the limitations that faced the PJD’s ability to win more votes. He states that four seats were at stake in Tangiers, and the PJD obtained 14,000 votes, which means that they got two of the four seats. Nevertheless, Amin Allal states that, due to the electoral legislations, even if the number of votes were doubled, the PJD would have won only one extra seat out of the four. Therefore, the nature of the Moroccan election system was overlooked in the PJD’s own expectations concerning their performance.
It is assumed by political analysts that urban areas, which constitute 57.4 per cent of the Moroccan population, are the stronghold of Islamist parties. Moreover, the mobilization by Islamist actors, in this case the PJD, is assumed to be correlated to their capacity to deliver social services in urban areas and its peripheries. In fact, the Moroccan regime itself believed in the assumption that Islamists have a stronghold in urban areas as is evident in how it invested huge resources in combating the proliferation of shantytowns -perceived as harboring radical Islamists following the Casablanca bombings in 2003.
Despite the widespread nature of these assumptions, some authors, who have conducted extensive fieldwork, present more nuanced arguments that better highlight the impact of the PJD’s social activities in urban areas and the peripheries. In her doctoral thesis, Lamia Zaki studies the dynamics of social identity in the shantytowns of Casablanca which inhabitants were transferred to by the regime’s initiative in the neighborhood of Hay Hassani. Shantytowns are widespread in Morocco, constituting around 8% of urban housing. Zaki’s work highlights both the relative impact as well as the fragmentation of Islamists in such shantytowns. While al-Adl and the PJD certainly have a presence is such shantytowns, Salafis do as well. Furthermore, the social services that Islamists provide put them in competition with the regime’s services. Nevertheless, Islamists are not the sole actors in those poor urban settings. Other parties and opposition movements have developed important networks to provide social and economic services in return for mobilizing support. This diversity in the service providers in shantytowns revises the assumptions that Islamists have a monopoly on poor urban regions. As Amin Allal resumes, they are providers, but not the only ones even if the noisiest ones.
If social services in exchange for political support is the main determinant of voting, then a discrepancy between the various opposition groups is inevitable. Local clientelism usually dominates the political behavior of voters. These patron-client dynamics transform the shantytowns into a bidding arena where votes are sold to the highest bidder. The times of elections represent the climax for vote mobilization. Following this rationale, wining votes is determined by the economic capabilities of the non-state actors, and thus, traditional parties, with their experience and local networks, are at an advantage. The PJD’s support as a result of its social work in urban areas should be considered in the context of its competition with other actors.

Proportional List System: Persons over Parties

There is a bit of a consensus among Moroccans experts regarding the effects of a proportional list system. The argument points to the personalization of the vote that favors notables and clientelistic dynamics, thus preventing votes for ‘parties’. Such personification of the vote suits those parties whose anchorage in the local sphere is through notables, especially in rural areas where such dynamics are more present.
This argument accounts for the loss of PJD’s votes due to its lack of local grasp of notable cooptation politics. Nevertheless, once again The PJD should have taken such a factor into account when speculating about its votes. In the fourth argument we will see in more detail the PJD’s role regarding local politics.


A large part of the speculations around the elections’ results has been concentrated on the ‘historically low turnout’. With a 63 per cent rate of absenteeism and 19 per cent of the votes spoiled votes, only 4.5 million out of 30 million Moroccans participated in these elections. The blank ballots and absentees account for more than the vote total for the IP and PJD put together. As the Moroccan political scientist Abdallah Tourabi so ironically put it, “if you add those who did not vote to those who cast blank ballots, they would form the biggest political party in the country.”
While much has been said around the spoiled ballots, especially in the Moroccan press and by Moroccan observers, there seems to be a consensus on explaining the phenomenon as being a result of the complexity of the ballot configuration and the vote system more so than as an act of protest.
Concerning the absenteeism figures, it is clear that political apathy appears to be the main explanation, especially if we keep in mind the reports by 3000 local observers and 50 international observers confirming the transparency of the election process. The regime has vested important efforts in mobilizing the electorate. Such efforts could be understood as the legitimacy deposited in the electoral process by the regime. The low outcome coupled with the accepted transparency of the vote process has been received by the monarchy with some embarrassment.
Youssef Belal explains the low turnout as being caused by two main factors. First, the link between votes and results being unclear induce many not to vote as a sanction behavior towards the government and coalition dynamics. Second, the electoral competition, deprived of any real power, offers one little incentive to vote. In fact, like Youssef Bellal, most of the observers point to the rational behavior of the Moroccan voters as they are aware of the little power that exists in the parliament as well as the weak link between votes and representation. This rational behavior also explains what we have said about economically driven votes in the first argument. Nevertheless, for the 2009 communal elections a higher participation rate is expected since the politics of proximity appear to be more relevant to Moroccans.
Moreover, the display of self-confidence by some leaders of the PJD in public media would have fostered absenteeism among PJD’s followers since anyway the PJD will win a large portion of the electorate even without their participation.
Without disregarding the argument of high absenteeism, which is valid for the PJD as well as for the other opposition parties alike, we should also think about the link between ‘the historically low turnout’ and the ‘historical transparency’ of the elections. It could be said that the recent transparency of the process reflects more faithfully the real rate of participation in the 2007 elections as opposed to previous elections where transparency was doubtful. This line of argument can account for part of the apparently high rate of absenteeism as being a result of a more accurate reflection of the turnout. This would suggest that accounts of participation in the past were ‘exceptionally high.’

PJD’s Organizational Shortcomings

Much has been said about the PJD’s lack of skill in mobilizing local notables. My sense here is that the PJD’s strategy of fostering the personality of their candidates, as a main attraction for votes, was the one adopted in the 2002 elections. In this way, although the PJD does not practice the strategy of notables’ cooptation, they use key figures in local PJD candidacies to gain the popular vote. Such strategy reveals that the PJD is aware of how personalities affect the vote and include this consideration in its political maneuverings. In fact, the so-called self-restrained strategy of the PJD in 2002 was a very calculated one. In 2002 the PJD only ran candidates in roughly half of the electoral districts, however, they presented their strongest personalities in those districts where their support was well-established. In this way, the PJD maximized its possibilities of success within a strategy of ‘self-restraint’. Such a strategy proves the PJD’s awareness and even deliberate instrumentalization of local interpersonal politics.
In sum, this argument helps to explain a dynamic in Morocco’s political life of which the PJD is aware, and plays an active part. Abdallah Tourabi points to the argument that the PJD has failed in its strategy of recruiting notables, but suggests that the PJD is actually on the path of ‘notabilization’ in order to widen its local leverage.
The second argument in this explanation points to the part of votes lost in the ocean of abstentions. Some have pointed to the perception among Moroccan voters that the PJD has been co-opted by the King. By entering the government officially in 1997, the PJD has progressively eroded its constituencies. Therefore by entering the political game, the PJD will do not legitimize the regime vis-à-vis its population, but rather delegitimize itself before its social bases. Maghraoui expresses some reservations concerning this point arguing that while the traditional parties’ decision to enter politics in the mid 70s was unilaterally decided by their bureaus, the inclusion of the PJD in politics has been constantly debated within its constituencies. In any case, it is undeniable that the progressive inclusion of the PJD in politics was achieved at the cost of sacrificing part of its social support. This is a problem that actually faces numerous Islamist political parties that originate from a prior social movement. Such a trajectory normally leads to the creation of a political head resting on a social body. In fact, the social support and therefore the capacity of social mobilization that the political head enjoys, constitutes, simultaneously, both its strength and its weakness before the regime. In other words such political parties are confronted by a double dilemma: how to please simultaneously its constituencies and the regime. And in Morocco, the interests of the regime and the people do not converge. By including the political branch in the political arena, the monarch is certainly trying to behead the political leadership from its social body. The loss of the social support will imply the weakness of the party before the regime. Nevertheless, such a phenomenon is not unique to the 2007 elections and the PJD should have been able to estimate its own constituencies in the equation of its electoral calculations.

Political Opposition fragmentation

The fifth and last kind of explanation points to the relation between parties explaining the weak progress of the PJD as a result of the extreme fragmentation of the Moroccan political scene. In fact, the diagram showed below with 21 parties with political representation, is the short version of a larger competition among 33 parties and 1862 candidates.
In a highly fragmented political arena, and a multiplicity of parties coupled with the proportional list system, the strategy of the monarchy is clear: divide and conquer. Such a number of parties also reveals the highly fragmented nature of the Moroccan political elite that is unable to coalesce around few strong parties. Nevertheless, the main opposition parties continue to be roughly the same for the past 20 years.
Such an approach explains a general rule in the political arena, that is that the political competition for the electorate is very strong and therefore affects all parties alike and not only the PJD. Looking closely to the political competition, the PJD takes advantage of its status as the uniquely strong Islamist opposition party. The entrance of smaller Islamist parties in politics, as the Parti de l’Alternative civilisationelle (Other Islamists parties as Parti de la Réforme et de la Vertu, Al-Badil Al-Hadari, or the Rassemblement pour l’Oumma have being recently illegalized), does not pose a serious challenge nowadays to the PJD. Moreover, the illegal and therefore non-electoral nature of al-Adl gives some advantage to the PJD in terms of Islamist political competition.
In the current political environment, two traditional political parties seem to present serious competition to the PJD. The nationalist and traditionalist IP has a great deal of support in the rural areas and among notables. The IP channels its discourse through a mix of nationalism, ‘Moroccanity’ and social conservatism. Such nationalistic approaches make the IP the main party in areas such as the Sahara, where nationality is a key issue and where the regime has injected an important number of Moroccan ‘colons.’ Nevertheless, the PJD, as we will see in this paper, draw its social support from urban areas. In this sense, the USFP is a more serious competitor since they both tap into the middle and urban class. Here ideology may matter and marks the difference between the parties’ constituencies. Nevertheless, it appears that the internal disputes and constant disintegration of the USFP in the last two decades have flattened the way for the PJD. Without entering into speculation as to whether or not USFP detractors came to inflate the PJD’s votes, it is clear that the breakdown of the left (USFP) in the last elections, losing 14 seats, has somehow revalorized the PJD’s position. Youssef Bellal, member of the Parti du Progrès et du Socialisme (PPS), points to the strategic reorganization of the left around new stronger demands in the taboo area of the constitutional division of power between the monarchy and the parliament. In sum, the internal dynamics of political parties’ fragmentation have somehow revalorized the PJD in the 2007 elections.
It remains to be seen what strategies the PJD will develop in the future to counter political competition. It is expected that if the current political parties prevail, the main challenge will come from the USFP in geographical terms and, from the IP in ideological terms.

The PJD’s Success in 2007
These five variables combined allow us to understand the dynamics, characteristics, nature and limitations of the closed political sphere in Morocco but do not explain the ‘failure’ of the PJD. In fact, these variables are somehow useless in explaining the PJD’s ‘failure’ because the question is posed incorrectly to begin with. Numerous scholars, especially Western scholars, presumed that the PJD’s ‘failure’ or ‘setback’ in securing seats was tactical rather than systemic. Such an approach proves to be unfounded in its primary assumption.
In fact, such an argument is based on three very subjective speculations: (1) the self-perception that the PJD portrayed in the press and public sphere; (2) the foreign polls largely reverberated by international governments in their worries concerning the rise of Islamic actors, and; (3) the speculations over an ‘unlimited’ constituency.
Concerning the self-perception of the PJD, we have seen that the leaders declarations, and notably the PJD’s general secretary Saddedine Othmani’s assertive words, were the product of a miscalculation of their own capacities. My sense here is that they underestimated the real limitations imposed by the new legislation and expected to compensate such losses by doubling the number of their candidates in districts. While the 2002 strategy was to concentrate its candidates in their strongholds, the 2007 strategy was more a strategy of marginal expansion in those constituencies where their support was less clear.
The controversy concerning intention of votes was fuelled by the US’s independent International Republican Institute just before the elections that pointed that up to 47 per cent of the electorate was leaning towards the PJD while the IP would only have 12 per cent of the popular support. The international media channeled the echo concerning the ‘entrance of Islamists’ in Moroccan politics. In fact the exaggerated attention vested by Europe and the US in Islamist political actors coupled with the intense deployment of informal visits by the PJD to European and US administrations helped to create an overexcited atmosphere over the PJD’s performance. The proliferation of political analysis foretelling the future composition of an Islamist government came to invade the academic arena too. Interestingly enough, the expectations raised in the international arena contrasted highly with the Moroccans national political apathy. If we look to local polls as the one conducted by the Moroccan DABA 2007 organization, they pointed out that “73% of Moroccans were not or not at all interested in the elections.”
Finally, scholars possibly maybe failed to consider the fact that Morocco’s electorate is not a bottomless pit. Furthermore, the threshold of votes that a party can reach is directly proportional to the extreme fragmentation of the Moroccan political sphere. In addition, looking in detail to the electoral engineering, publicized a few months before the elections, it should have been expected that even if the PJD had doubled its votes in certain districts, they would not have been able to secure extra seats. Such is the trap of electoral engineering where proportional representation electoral system blocks any substantial “raz-de marée” of Islamist parties.


Posing the question of the PJD’s performance in elections in negative terms from the beginning does not totally invalidate the above five variables in explaining why the PJD has probably reached its maximum threshold of popular votes under these particular conditions. These variables allow us to look into the regime’s strategies towards the definition and limitation of the political game. They also revealed the role that opposition parties play. And finally they showed how the voters reacted and positioned themselves as rational actors in their political choices.
Some could argue that despite the fact that the PJD could not increase its votes in the current political situation, the failure of the PJD in terms of mobilizing its constituencies goes back to the fragmentation of the Islamist sector in the informal arena. In other words, the failure of the PJD would be related to the boycott of al-Adl Wal Ihsan.

The five considered variables take place in the visible and legal political arena. They do not take into account the political competition in Islamic terms, since the PJD is the only significant legal Islamist political actor.

The particularity of Morocco in the religious arena is marked. The religious legitimacy that the monarch enjoys, coupled with the division of the Islamist sphere between two movements with very different profiles contributes to a further fragmentation of an already fragmented electorate.
The impact of al-Adl on the PJD’s voters is difficult to ascertain. The gap between legal and illegal parties is difficult to analyze as long as fieldwork and data are lacking. Nevertheless, most signs point to the fact that as long as al-Adl is not a direct competitor in official elections, the behavior of voters is not significantly influenced by al-Adl but rather by the endogenous dynamics of elections and the reign of the ‘free-market’ of votes. In other words, the impact of al-Adl on potential voters for the PJD is rather limited. This does not mean that in the event of a possible inclusion of al-Adl in officially sanctioned politics the challenge would not be real. But within the current context, the real challenges for the PJD in the political arena are the left and nationalists and not al-Adl. Indeed, the PJD is reaping the benefits of al-Adl’s self-exclusion from legally sanctioned politics. If time comes for al-Adl to participate in politics, then a deeper fragmentation of the political arena is to be expected, with an intensification of the Islamists’ political competition.

The main reason why analysts and experts had difficulty explaining the ‘unexpected’ outcome and the PJD’s ‘failure’ in the 2007 legislative elections is due to the unfounded assumptions that framed the debate. The arguments commonly used to explain the PJD’s ‘failure’ assume that the PJD’s seats should be double those obtained in 2002. By taking a closer look at the elections and Morocco’s political competition structure, we see why such high expectations are unfounded. Furthermore, there were no strong arguments for a PJD raz-de-marée (tidal wave) in the elections. The arguments supporting a spectacular showing by PJD in the 2007 elections were the product of subjective speculations and a feverish international climate regarding Islamist actors’ entrance in politics.
However, a strong argument could be put forth to explain the failure of the PJD resultant of the political competition between Islamist actors. In fact, despite the illegality of al-Adl, it could be able to dissuade certain potential PJD’s voters from participating in elections. Nevertheless, the impact that al-Adl had on the PJD turned out to be limited if not beneficial. Moreover, the popularity of al-Adl is based on the confrontation of Mohamed VI and A. Yassine. Such a confrontation will reach an end when one of the two actors disappears. A. Yassine’s death could reverse the dynamics of the situation. Further, relying on A. Yassine’s personal charisma as the movement’s source of cohesion, al-Adl would be subjected to drastic changes following an internal succession struggle. The PJD’s primary competitor in the current political structure comes from the left and its ideological competitor, the conservative IP. None of those suppose a challenge to the King. The PJD will have to react to those two political challengers in the political arena. This competition will consecrate the PJD in the ‘routinization’ of the ‘Islamist actor’ in Morocco’s constructed political arena.
Furthermore, the fact that the elections were transparent and therefore fair indicates that the PJD has reached its potential of political votes (despite certain cases of corruption denounced in local press), which could support the argument that the PJD’s political anchorage reflects a more pluralistic trend in the attitude of the monarchy. Balancing out the different considerations of the PJD’s performance as a political actor in the elections cannot support an assertion of a total victory or a total failure. From a micro-political perspective, the PJD’s failure can be seen as the inability to enter the government (Kutla) and therefore its incapacity of participating in the ‘management’ of power. Regarding its achievements, the PJD’s inclusion entails a more pluralistic political elite given that new PJD members represent new blood, “fresh air”, in governmental circles. Nevertheless, the overall picture posits the PJD’s inclusion in politics as a pyrrhic victory. The PJD’s inclusion and the 2007 performance are no more than one expression of a major trend – the widening of the social exclusion from politics. To conclude, the PJD’s so-called failure is certain, but the explanation does not lie in its low performance, but rather in its inability to enter government and most of all in its inability to include broader constituencies.


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