Lopsided Struggle for Power in Morocco

The conflict over Morocco’s cabinet formation is a struggle for power between the PJD and the palace.

A Four-party alliance led by billionaire Aziz Akhannouch voted on January 13 for Habib El Malki, a leader of the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP), to become speaker of Morocco’s House of Representatives. The move was supported by the Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), the Justice and Development Party’s (PJD) main rival, while PJD leader Abdelilah Benkirane strongly opposed Malki’s election, stressing it was a red line that “would force the [government formation] talks to a dead end.”1 But Benkirane had to cede to pressure and implicitly accept Malki’s election as a speaker so parliament could convene by January 18 to vote on Morocco’s request to join the African Union. However, he still refuses to enter into a coalition government that involves the USFP, extending Morocco’s leadership crisis that has already lasted nearly four months.

Abdelilah Benkirane has held steadfast in his rejection of the USFP, a nationalist party that remains influential despite steadily slipping in the polls for over a decade. However, not too long ago, when Benkirane was forming his first government in late 2011, he had bent over backwards to include them, only to see the USFP snub his Islamist-led coalition.

But greater forces are at play than Benkirane’s sentiments toward the USFP. The current crisis is a behind-the-scenes struggle for power between the palace and the PJD. Akhannouch’s alliance, composed of the National Rally of Independents (RNI), the Constitutional Union, the Popular Movement, and the USFP, fully backs the palace, which supports it in turn. It is hampering the PJD’s attempts to move on with government formation even though each of its constituent parties suffered a significant decline in the October 7 elections compared to the PJD’s high percentage of seats—the highest any Moroccan party has won since independence. Akhannouch, who was elected head of the RNI after Salaheddine Mezouar resigned in October—even though not only was he not a party leader, he had left the party altogether five years earlier—seems to march to the palace’s orders to the extent that the press has started calling him “the king’s new friend.”

The palace’s plan during Benkirane’s second term is to control the governing coalition from the inside. This means Akhannouch is looking to plant himself in the coalition and gain sway over government decisionmaking. The palace had learned during Benkirane’s first term that the PJD leader was clearly displeased there were outside attempts to meddle with the governing coalition, in particular by Fouad Ali El Himma and Ilyas El Omari. Shaping decisionmaking from within the ruling coalition instead gives the palace the appearance of respecting the constitution and the rules of politics. New RNI leader Akhannouch needed a decent parliamentary bloc to achieve this, and the four-party alliance he now heads boasts an impressive 103 members of the House of Representatives.

The USFP could have provided Benkirane a wealth of political goodwill. However, USFP secretary-general Driss Lachgar prefers to coordinate with the RNI instead of the PJD because he wants to enter the coalition under Akhannouch’s umbrella rather than Benkirane’s, of whom he has been critical. Benkirane is afraid that the pro-palace quartet will become an obstructionist minority within his government, forcing policies different from his own. For example, the RNI has always opposed any direct financial support for citizens, in contrast to the PJD’s plan subsidy reform plans for cash payments to poor families, which would boost the PJD’s popularity among its voter base. Meanwhile the traditional elites already think the PJD’s popularity is getting out of hand, since the PJD nearly defeated an electoral system designed to make it impossible for a single party to get an absolute majority.

Even if the RNI and its allies can reach a deal with the PJD to join the ruling coalition, Akhannouch has further refused to let the Istiqlal Party join, which had been the PJD’s preferred ally. This was the case even well before the Istiqlal secretary-general said that Mauritania really belonged to Morocco, triggering a diplomatic crisis the palace then exploited to force Benkirane to reject Istiqlal as a coalition partner. Without Istiqlal, Benkirane’s hand weakened against the four-party alliance, because Istiqlal had the most members of parliament to offer to a coalition and all alternatives were closer to the palace. The aim is to isolate the PJD not only within parliament but also the government itself, which the PJD is trying to avoid. A party leader told Akhbar al-Youm,“We cannot accept the head of government [Benkirane] joining a majority that is formed for him, instead of him forming it.”1

The palace has used its numerous strengths in this lopsided conflict since the onset of the current crisis. Most of the parties in parliament take their orders from the palace, and together they form a numerical majority within the House of Representatives—making it impossible for Benkirane to form a majority without a royal blessing. In 2011 he was able to do this by agreeing to a sort of quid pro quo with the palace, where allowing the PJD leading the government helped tamp down public unrest. The majority of Morocco’s media outlets are pro-palace and have kept pressure on Benkirane to make another compromise by painting him as a failing, isolated political leader.

In reality, however, Benkirane has demonstrated patience and flexibility toward the pro-palace camp’s maneuvering and demands. First, he agreed to postpone forming a government for three weeks after the October 7 elections so the RNI could hold an extraordinary conference to “elect” Akhannouch as its pro-monarchy leader. He also accepted Istiqlal’s exclusion from the anticipated governing coalition, even though the party was the PJD’s best option.

But with time ticking, Benkirane has few options ahead. The most politically acceptable for the party is a face-saving compromise for everyone: to allow the USFP into the parliamentary majority but keep it out of the cabinet. But the pro-palace quartet still might not accept this option. If Benkirane then continues to refuse to allow the USFP into the government, the four-month Moroccan crisis will continue, potentially leading to the dissolution of the House of Representatives and snap elections. Alternately, if Benkirane accepts the USFP within the government, he would be completely surrendering to the palace’s conditions. This would upset the new political balance wherein the head of government has the constitutional and political weight to fight against the palace’s long-standing absolute control over the public political sphere.

After having treated the PJD as their savior in 2011, the traditional elites now believe it has outlived its usefulness.

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

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