All power to the palace

After a five-month deadlock during which Moroccan Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane was unable to form a coalition government, he has been ousted by King Mohammed VI, showing his increasing unwillingness to tolerate any ruler beside himself. An analysis by Moroccan dissident and journalist Ali Anouzla

By Ali Anouzla

Ever since the parliamentary elections on 7 October 2016, in which the "Justice and Development Party" (PJD) gained the most votes, Morocco has been experiencing a political crisis that is unprecedented in its recent history, preventing the formation of a functioning government.

The Moroccan Constitution stipulates that the king is to appoint a representative from the party receiving the most votes as the head of government. On 10 October 2016,  the king thus entrusted the PJD secretary general and former prime minister, Abdelilah Benkirane, with forming a new government.

But after five months, all of Benkirane's efforts to generate a parliamentary majority for his government had come to naught. Morocco's King Mohammed VI then took until 17 March to reach the decision to replace Prime Minister Benkirane with the PJD politician Saad-Eddine El Othmani as new head of government.

Morocco's royal house – the invisible string-puller

The reason for this delay is that the political actor still pulling the strings behind the scenes even today is in fact "the royal palace". On its orders, a friend of the king was appointed chairman of a small political party directly after the election results were announced. This newly anointed "party leader" was then able, likewise with support from the palace, to forge an alliance of four parties and to act as its agent carrying out the negotiations with Benkirane.

Although this quadruple alliance has a total of only 103 seats in parliament (compared to the PJD's 126), it nonetheless proved to be a driving force in the negotiations, trying to impose its conditions on the prime minister-designate and forcing him to keep making new concessions. Benkirane had no choice but to play the game, because he knew that the alliance was not acting on its own behalf but rather at the behest of the palace, without which it would not have existed in the first place.

The question that many observers are currently asking is: why is the palace so anxious to put pressure on a party chairman who would obviously bow to the king's demands voluntarily? Is the real intention perhaps to humiliate and subjugate him in order to rob him of all credibility in the eyes of the public?

We can look for answers by reviewing the history of relations between palace, political parties and trade unions since Moroccan independence. Both open and subliminal conflicts are revealed, some of which even took the form of armed clashes. The real sticking point has always been the palace's ambition to concentrate all power in its own hands, brooking no other ruler beside itself, no matter how loyal.

Morocco′s former prime minister Benkirane (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
On the way out: more than five months after the PJD′s victory at the general elections, the Moroccan king withdrew Abdelilah Benkirane′s mandate to form a new government, naming Saad -Eddine El Othmani instead as the new prime minister. A professional psychiatrist, El Othmani was leader of the Islamist Party for Justice and Development (PJD) from 2004 to 2008. He served as foreign minister from 2012 to 2013

Political discord and purchased loyalties

Ever since Morocco achieved its independence, the strategy of the palace has been to undermine political parties and trade unions and to nip emerging social movements in the bud. Various mechanisms have been used to carry out this strategy. The palace has tried to split up political parties and trade unions, to sow dissension in their ranks and purchase the loyalty of their leaders, while repressing those who resisted the lure and would not budge from their principles. In the process, it created entities similar to parties and trade unions that were loyal to the royal house, in order to shake up the political landscape and prevent a power vacuum.

This strategy has lost nothing of its efficacy today. And yet it has proven fruitless thus far against the power of the PJD. This is because one of the greatest strengths of this party, despite all its pragmatism and willingness to compromise, is that it is still immune to any attempt at infiltration or division.No integration for Morocco's religious integrists

To a certain extent, the PJD was initially a product of the palace, designed to kill two birds with one stone:

The first goal was to politically integrate the Islamists so as not to give them a monopoly on the opposition after the late King Hassan II persuaded the "Socialist Union of Popular Forces" (USFP), the dominant opposition party for four decades, to join the government in 1998 and propose a candidate for prime minister.

Only a few months earlier, in 1997, the (Islamist) "Movement for Unity and Reform" had been allowed for the first time to take part in the politics game by teaming up with and ultimately merging with a party loyal to the palace. The result was today's "Justice and Development Party" (PJD).

The second objective was to split the Islamists into different wings. Despite their ideological differences, they had been held together until that time by the fact that the regime categorically refused to co-operate with them – not only with the wing that was adamantly against the system but also with the pragmatists who were willing to make any compromise to serve the state. No matter which path they chose, they had to act outside of the political arena – making for an uneasy situation for the state.

PJD party conference in Rabat (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Unpopular opposition: the strategy of the palace has been to undermine political parties and trade unions and to nip emerging social movements in the bud. To fulfil this strategy, Mohammed VI has pursued various tacks. He has tried to split up political parties and trade unions, to sow dissension in their ranks and purchase the loyalty of their leaders, while repressing those who resisted the lure and would not budge from their principles

The PJD – a thorn in the king's side

As it turned out, though, the very party that was founded with the blessing of the system would develop more and more into a pesky thorn in its side. The state failed to drive a wedge between members of party and thus weaken it from the inside. This is the source of one of the latent conflicts that still divides palace and PJD to this day. The palace's clandestine objective is to weaken the PJD, because independent parties, and in particular strong ones boasting the PJD's mass popularity and democratic legitimisation, are anathema to the king – even if they proclaim their loyalty to him and are ready to make all conceivable concessions.

Despite the pragmatism of its functionaries, the PJD party instils fear in the palace. After all, it managed in a way to beat the electoral system the regime had formerly used to manipulate the political landscape. For four decades, the electoral system was one of the key levers with which the state controlled Moroccan politics.

Three fundamental mechanisms allow the state to exercise influence over the election results in advance: granting voting rights according to its own interests, dividing up constituencies and compiling voter lists. All of this is done under the supervision of the Ministry of the Interior, which is frequently led by unelected ministers appointed by the king and who thus do not answer to the prime minister.

Although this system remains unchanged, the PJD – which is incidentally considered the party most hesitant to criticise this system – was able to circumvent it in the elections of 7 October by gaining more than 31 percent of parliamentary seats.

Observers of Moroccan domestic politics think it would have been possible for the PJD to even win more than 50 percent of the seats if new elections had been held as a consequence of the failure to form a government. Many voters would likely have sympathised with the party, seeing it as a victim of the system.

Playing a politically ambivalent game

The PJD has demonstrated that it is capable of making independent decisions. This is one of its great strengths. However, it is also a party that doesn't quite know what to do with its independence. It professes to be against the "power cartel", i.e., the "deep state". But on the other, it never misses a chance to emphasise its good relations with that very state. It withstands the pressure exerted by the state and yet readily meets its demands.

Moroccan journalist Ali Anouzla (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Moroccan author and journalist Ali Anouzla was responsible for ″″, a website banned by the Moroccan authorities in 2013. In the same year Anouzla received a "Leaders for Democracy" award from the U.S. organisation POMED. Since March 2016 he has been a guest of the Hamburg Foundation for Politically Persecuted People

The question of what constitutes an independent party in today's Morocco is not easy to answer when even the largest ostensibly independent party is unable to play this trump card when dealing with political opponents. Ultimately, the same can be said of independence as of freedom: it is only sustained and consolidated through actual use.

In the final analysis, the palace wishes to set a cautionary example with the PJD, making it appear to be a party that dances to its tune. This closeness to the royal house would naturally damage the credibility of the moderate Islamists; and it would diminish their popularity among their followers and sympathisers were they to give up their claim to independence.

A dysfunctional relationship

The latest political crisis in Morocco has revealed three basic trends in Moroccan politics:

1. The palace does not tolerate any other force at its side, regardless of its origin or legitimacy – not even one that submits faithfully and offers its services.

2. Trust has broken down between the palace and the Islamists, despite the PJD demonstrating its ability to govern over the past five years and doing everything to cater to royal wishes.

3. The country's ruling elite, embodied by the royal palace, has no real political motivation to establish a transparent political system in which the will of the people can manifest itself in free elections.

Ali Anouzla

© 2017

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

Postscriptum: Morocco's Prime Minister Saadeddine El Othmani succeeded in building a governing coalition on 25 March, ending the political deadlock just eight days after taking office.