The Justice and Development Party’s weakness is a penchant for making promises that are very difficult to deliver upon.
At the beginning of August, the picture of Mr. and Mrs. Obama with Morocco’s Prime Minister Abdellilah Benkirane and his wife in the White House toured the web and trended on Moroccan and American social media platforms. This picture renewed the public opinion’s interest, that of the West in particular, in the Moroccan prime minister and the party he represents.
The Justice and Development Party (PJD) has been the ruling party in Morocco since November 2011. The party advocates a form of Islamic democracy, and has placed economic and legal issues at the core of its platform. As for several other newly installed parties in this region, the PJD’s initial ideologies were inspired by Turkey‘s ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), albeit, nowadays, there are some important differences between the two. In the Moroccan case, the party strongly bases its legitimacy on religious principles, unlike the Turkish version which is more firmly rooted in the Turkish post-Ottoman secular tradition. The Moroccan party’s ideology is, therefore, more intimately knotted with Islamic tradition. However, this has not prevented the Moroccan PJD from adopting some liberal models of market economy.
A couple of details remain unclear about the party’s identity. For example, it is open to question to what extent the party relies on the Sharia (Islamic Law) for its legal doctrine, or what exactly its relation to the Muslim Brotherhood is. Being a political party with an Islamic basis, the PJD shares some of the same ideologies of the Muslim Brotherhood, but affirms to operate “with different principles.” In February 2013, the Moroccan prime minister and secretary-general of the Justice and Development Party denied that his party belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood, emphasizing that each Islamist movement has “its own political thought.”
It is also of note that the Moroccan monarchy is not an eager supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. When Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood official and the first president of post-January 25 revolution Egypt, was ousted from his post, King Mohammed VI of Morocco was the first North African leader to welcome the interim president, Adly Mansour, hailing the Egyptian military for what he called “swift and decisive action.”
The PJD’s Rise To Power
In order to fully understand the PJD, it is important to comprehend the relationship between the party and the monarchy. Morocco is a country where the monarchy still holds considerable power over political and economic affairs. At the end of the French colonial era, Hassan II took charge of developing infrastructure and the overall economy, and through the state apparatus, was effectively the main employer in the country.
Writing for Fair Observer, Samia Errazzouki explains that, as the population and general living standards started to increase, so did the Moroccan public sector, which became progressively more bloated and less and less competitive. Advisors claimed that the only way to avoid certain economic collapse was to initiate privatization of national industry. Thereafter, many newly privatized industries ended up in the hands of a small circle of families loyal to the monarchy.
The protests showed that many Moroccans were not satisfied with the PJD’s achievements. They felt that the promises were not being delivered upon.
The aforementioned reforms were insufficient to root out some of the more persistent problems in the Moroccan economy, such as the looming state deficit, lack of economic competitiveness and high unemployment rates. As a result, several popular movements sprung out of the general discontent, with many pushing to reform the country into a constitutional monarchy. In the push for reform, Morocco was not exempt from the wave of protests that swept through the region during the Arab Spring at the beginning of this decade.
According to Manuel Langendorf, King Mohammed VI responded by promising a constitutional referendum and, put in motion a reform agenda to promote a more independent judiciary and a more autonomous parliament. He also mentions that a number of important powers were still to remain firmly in the hands of the king. For example, the power to dissolve parliament, dismiss ministers, call for new elections and the right to rule on a large array of religious and security issues.
The PJD rose to prominence in this period of post-uprisings in Morocco. The party won the parliamentary elections of November 2011, and Abdelilah Benkirane was chosen as the country’s first Islamist prime minister. The party formed a coalition with three other parties, which includes the Independence Party (Istiqlal), the Popular Movement Party (originally a part of the PJD before it split from it), and the Party of Progress and Socialism (previously the Communist Party), with the aim to reduce unemployment and target an average economic growth rate of 5.5%. A period of relative political and social stability prevailed until May 2012 when trade unions organized mass protests. If we look at the popularity of the PJD over the past two years, we can in fact notice a trending decline in and around May 2012.
The protests showed that many Moroccans were not satisfied with the PJD’s achievements. They felt that the promises were not being delivered upon. Some, however, point out that they are doing what they can, and that in many ways their hands are tied. Political analyst Boubakr Jamai, a fellow at Harvard Ash Center and founder of the Moroccan news website Lakome.com, explains that their power is rather limited since many important government functions are controlled by the King. “You cannot claim to have the government,” he says, “if you don’t control some important ministries.”
An Ambitious Economic Strategy Turned Bankrupt?
Perhaps for this reason, the PJD has been concentrating its efforts on economic matters. In recent years, the nation has embarked on an ambitious drive toward economic liberalization, opening its markets and ports to global trade. International investors, mainly from the EU, are attracted to what Morocco has to offer in terms of logistics and infrastructure. The Tangier Free Zone has drawn in 475 international companies, and the government is encouraging even more foreign investment.
The PJD believes that Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) plays an important role in job creation and revenue generation. The Moroccan government is thus constantly seeking foreign investors, and implementing different strategies to attract as many as possible. The government has offered perks to investors such as income tax breaks, import duty exemptions and cash subsidies. These strategies were implemented under the notion that the positive consequences of FDI, such as job creation and GDP growth, would far outweigh the costs of these concessions.
There are, however, hidden costs to this policy. In particular, the cost of living has increased while unemployment rates have remained high, a mix which by all means has the potential to lead to social frustrations. The series of self-immolations that took place in 2012 reflect these frustrations. In order to defuse these grievances, and avoid the kind of social unrest that ousted rulers in places like Tunisia and Egypt, the government has increased public spending. Morocco has spent heavily on energy subsidies and higher public sector salaries in order to counter the effect of inflation and stave off discontent. To do this, the government had to take out a large line of credit from the IMF. Two years ago, the IMF approved a $6.2 billion credit line for Morocco.
According to CPI Financial, donors, ratings agencies and institutional investors all expect that by the end of 2014 the fiscal deficit will have contracted by 2.4% of GDP compared to 2012, while the current account deficit would have declined by 3.9% of GDP in the same time frame.
Most observers agree that this kind of spending alone is insufficient to address some of the more deeply rooted institutional problems. In particular, the government has been criticized for moving too slowly on its promised reforms. According to political analyst Jamal Farhani, the government is well behind schedule in terms of implementing the provisions of the constitution. Most of the drafted laws have not yet been enacted. The government is also late on implementing the pension fund reform.
According to Morocco World News, the secretary general of Istiqlal, Hamid Chabat explained that the economic, social and political indexes give clear signs that Morocco’s situation is “worrying” and it will be “worse” in the future. He claims that the government is actually diminishing the citizens’ ability to weather economic hardship by allowing the price of staple goods to increase. Chabat added that Morocco, after the government strained the country’s resources with huge amounts of external loans, has become a “hostage” in the hands of international financial institutions. This, he says, is pushing the country close to the “precipice” of a national economic crisis. It is worth noting that Chabat is a strong political opponent of Benkirane’s — especially since the dissolution of the government coalition in 2013 — as both have engaged in a lengthy “political row” aiming at ruining the other’s reputation.
Despite such criticisms, the numbers do not lie. According to CPI Financial, donors, ratings agencies and institutional investors all expect that by the end of 2014 the fiscal deficit will have contracted by 2.4% of GDP compared to 2012, while the current account deficit would have declined by 3.9% of GDP in the same time frame. As a result, external and fiscal financing needs will decline, and be met by the domestic banking system, continuing FDI inflows and donor support.
Riding this wave of economic success, on November 25, 2013, the PJD won the most seats in the parliamentary elections of Morocco. This time, the “new government has a true will for reform and we will keep all the promises we made,” said Prime Minister Benkirane after the party’s swearing in. We read in The World Post that the PJD “will do everything to encourage foreign and domestic investment to create a climate of prosperity.” This period of acceptance and growth lasted up until June 2013, when a political deadlock followed the collapse of the ruling coalition which included both the PJD and Istiqlal.
At the moment, the Party enjoys a very promising position in the Moroccan political landscape, according to a report by the Association of Concerned Africa Scholars. Hicham Mnaouar argues that “historical conditions have provided the party with a suitable environment to achieve some progress … It has adopted a gradual approach to political action, and not conflicted with the Moroccan regime since its establishment; rather it has acknowledged the monarchy of the state and supported the idea of a constitutional monarchy.” Its weakness perhaps, includes a penchant for making promises that are very difficult to deliver upon — for example, the apparent absurdity of trying to open the nation to the global financial system and at the same time keep prices and corruption low. However, as Napolean said, in politics, absurdity is not a handicap.
*[This article was prepared by Ethnographic Edge in collaboration with the Research Institute of Geopolitics and Geo-Economics (IRGG) of the ESCA School of Management, Casablanca, using web intelligence provided by Recorded Future. The article was published by Fair Observer in partnership with Ethnographic Edge.]