I spent the day of the elections, November 25, in two cities; the first half in Marrakesh and the second half in Casablanca. What stood out at once was the obvious lack of excitement or interest in the elections amongst most people. The media talk shows and op-Ed pages are buzzing with excitement and commentators are heralding this 'historic election' as a barometer of many things; as a test of Islamism's new found strength, the durability of the Arab Spring, the acceptance of constitutional reforms and many wonderful things, but the common man in Morocco seems oblivious of this.
I spoke with several people, lay -- cab drivers, vendors, waiters, bellhops -- and elite -- professors, business people, private university students. The lack of enthusiasm is epidemic. Most people more or less say, "Well nothing is going to change so what is the point?" A cab driver with instincts of a political science professor explained to me that there was little to choose between the parties so there was not much at stake. The two main contenders are the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) and the Coalition for Democracy a pro-monarchy coalition of eight parties.
The cab driver also opined that since no party was capable of winning a majority -- the system is so structured that no party can win more than twenty percent of the vote -- the ensuing coalition, necessary for governance, would render the elections less meaningful. A professor and an important intellectual from Rabat told me that he was leaning in the favor of the Islamists. But he expected them to "become like everyone else" in the post-election jostling for power and positions. He was confident that PJD would be the biggest party, but he also expressed fears that the Islamists would compromise so much to form a coalition government that selecting them over others would be rendered moot. "What is the point of preferring them if they all are the same in the end"?
It was an interesting observation, oft repeated in Morocco during this election cycle. The Islamists are no different from the rest. They are just politicians even in the eyes of their supporters. For someone who is fed on the daily diet of western fears of Islamist victories, confirmed by Al-Nahda's win in Tunisia, this particular sentiment was both amusing and enlightening. Most critics of the Islamists in the West fear Islamist parties without recognizing that they are political parties and their trajectory of development and evolution, once electoral politics are institutionalized, will follow that of most other parties in the region.
It appears that the people of Morocco are tired with moderation and consensual politics and are looking for a more decisive direction. Even though most individuals acknowledged that the next prime minister will be more powerful than the last one, they were not enthused. I was in Morocco when the constitutional reforms were being debated before the national referendum. Clearly there was a lot of enthusiasm and excitement in the public at that time. Any question about the reforms elicited immediate reaction and people aired their point of view, pro-monarchy or pro-democracy, with great gusto. Perhaps at that time they intuitively sensed that they had an opportunity to bring about real change. But now they seemed to be resigned to slow and meandering change in their fortunes.
The series of uprisings that are now optimistically referred to as the Arab Spring, have met with success and failures. They more or less succeeded in bringing about regime changes in Africa -- Tunisia, Egypt and Libya -- and as yet have met with failure in Asia -- Bahrain, Syria and Saudi Arabia. Morocco however is an unusual case. It has, like Jordan, embarked on a path to political reforms that will strengthen and deepen democracy without completely abandoning its key political institution, the monarchy.
In Morocco the monarch is also the Ameer-ul-Momineen (Commander of the Faithful). The King of Morocco therefore is both the head of state and head of religion. He thus enjoys a unique form of legitimacy and allegiance that is not available to other monarchs and emirs in the Muslim World. Even the King of Saudi Arabia, who is richer, more powerful and has done much more for his population, and has also co-opted religion does not enjoy the same degree of legitimacy and support that is extended to the King of Morocco.
Unlike the King of Saudi Arabia who has tried to buy an extension to his lease on power with a 69 billion dollar aid package for his people, the King of Morocco like his fellow impoverished King of Jordan, has chosen to deal with the widespread discontent through political reforms. Moroccan reforms were rushed through in the Summer of 2011 with much heralded constitutional changes ratified by a national referendum in June. The reforms were supposed to make the elections fairer, reduce the King's control in several areas and give the elected parliament and ministers real power to make policies. There are three areas however in which there were no changes and the King retained complete control over national security, foreign policy and religious affairs.
While the changes did not satisfy most of the regime's critics they have succeeded in keeping the public discontent at manageable levels. There is a pro-democracy movement, 'February 20 movement', which feels that reforms have not gone far enough and along with the banned Islamist party Adl wa Ihsan (Justice and Excellence), have called for a boycott. The current elections and their outcome, therefore are critical to cementing the legitimacy of the reforms as well as that of the regent.
Life in Morocco, for most people, is very hard. There is widespread poverty and disenchantment. People are not optimistic about their economic future. They are also smart enough to recognize that political changes alone will not have an immediate impact on their living conditions. Additionally, Morocco has been a relatively free society, both politically and socially and therefore reforms are not going to bring significant changes in their quality of life. For Islamists and the small elite who have political ambitions, the reforms have opened windows to real power and hence they are galvanized.
The Moroccan street however is exotic, fascinating, but not excited.
PS: Reports coming in suggest that the voter turnout was low, around 45 percent of the registered voters. The voter registration reportedly has declined since 2007. But the Islamists party is poised to win the largest share of the 395 seats in the parliament. The expectations are over 100 seats.
Dr. Muqtedar Khan is Associate Professor at the University of Delaware and a Fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. His website is www.ijtihad.org.
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