Morocco expands its political reforms and increases participation

North Africa has undergone some turbulent times over the past four years, but among all of the regime changes and revolutions, Morocco has maintained an impressive level of stability. The kingdom has deliberately cultivated a reputation as one of the most moderate and tolerant countries in the region, aided in part by reforms enacted under King Mohammed VI, who ascended to the throne in 1999. Over the past 16 years, measures to improve domestic governance, strengthen rural development, liberalise the business environment and boost inclusion have brought about noticeable results.

More recently, even as neighbouring countries grappled with uprisings and conflict, Morocco sought to address grievances – whether the recognition of Berber as an official language or the role of religious parties in elections – through greater political participation and moderate constitutional amendments. This has allowed the kingdom to maintain a steady rate of economic growth, which it has in turn sought to strengthen by expanding ties with both its primary trade partners in Europe, as well as with new markets in sub-Saharan Africa.

Historic Changes

With its natural geographic propensity for cultural confluence, ancient Morocco was home to both Phoenician coastal areas and native Berber populations, both of which were transformed by the Roman Empire’s expansion throughout North Africa. Further cultural impact came with the invasion of Arab armies in the 7th century, which firmly established Islam as the main religion. In 670 CE the Umayyads of Damascus conquered the North African coastal plain, bringing the Arabic language.

This led to a succession of local Islamic dynasties gaining control of the territory over the following centuries. Following the withdrawal of Arab rule, the country saw a succession of local Berber dynasties, beginning with the Great Berber Revolt in 739 CE, such as the Idrisids, Almoravids, Almohads, Merinids and Wattasids. The 17th century saw the rise and establishment of the Alaouite dynasty, which remain rulers of Morocco today.

Over the centuries, areas of the kingdom fell under the control of rising European nations, with Portugal and Spain establishing several outposts alongside the kingdom’s coast as the two countries sought to control sea trade. Between the 15th and 17th centuries, Portugal built trading centres in El Jadida and Morgador (present-day Essaouira) along the Atlantic coast, while Spain established control over Ceuta and Melilla in Morocco’s Mediterranean coast. The two enclaves remain under Spanish rule to this day and are a matter of contention between the two nations. On the country’s east, the city of Oujda was once governed by the Ottoman Empire first, and the colonial French administration in Algeria later.

Ongoing Tradition

Contrary to what happened to the majority of territories and states in North Africa, Morocco was able to hold on to its independence for several centuries, up until 1912, when the European powers, by then entrenched in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Algeria, decided to grant France domination over Morocco, which become a de facto protectorate. Spain also gained control of much on the northern strip of the kingdom, securing a territory linking the Tangiers Peninsula to the border with neighbouring Algeria to the east.

Despite foreign influence, Morocco’s royal family remained in power. The first half of the 20th century, however, saw a growing opposition to French rule, including Berber uprisings in the Riff Mountains. Pro-independence pressure was led mainly by the nationalist-conservative Istiqlal (independence) party, which opposed both foreign domination and the established monarchy. Fraught with internal pressure, as well as the consequences of the increasingly violent war for independence in neighbouring Algeria, France gave Morocco full independence in 1956.

Political Challenges

Less than a decade after independence, Morocco’s political environment underwent a transition phase. The Istiqlal Party majority splintered, allowing for the eventual emergence in 1975 of the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (Union Socialiste des Forces Populaires, USFP).

Furthermore, the death of King Mohammed V in 1961 opened the door for his son, Hassan II, to take the helm of the monarchy. In the context of the Cold War, the new king closely aligned the country with the Western bloc, although his rule was characterised by limited political engagement and a muscular approach to dissent, leading it to be labelled “the years of lead”. During King Hassan II’s reign there were two failed coup attempts by military officers; however, Morocco’s king was able to stave off revolt. By the late 1990s Morocco underwent a degree of political liberalisation.

A New Era

After his death in 1999, Hassan II was succeeded by his son Mohammed VI, who has served as Morocco’s king ever since. The next in the line of succession to the throne is Mohammed VI’s son, Crown Prince Moulay Hassan II. The king has taken a number of steps to improve the inclusiveness of both the political and economic processes in the country. On several fronts, Morocco’s current ruler has been able to further advance some of the reforms that had been initiated by his predecessor. Social advancement came from the changes implemented to the family code in 2004, which allowed more room for women’s rights. The king has also promoted freedom of expression through the partial liberalisation of the media. Another important measure was the establishment of a truth and reconciliation committee to shed light on past abuses.

The Arab Spring in 2011, while confined predominantly to Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, nonetheless prompted the government to undertake further reforms of the country’s political system. In response to popular concerns over political participation and governance, a royally appointed commission tasked with proposing changes to the constitution was established by authorities. Measures focused mainly on the transferring of some powers from the monarchy to the parliament and government, as well as improving regulations to enhance transparency and stem corruption.

System of Government

Despite recent changes in its political system, Morocco remains the only constitutional monarchy in North Africa. The constitution, which was initially enacted in 1962, outlines the system of government and representation, and recently underwent several amendments in 2011. For the process to move forward, the royal palace appointed a special commission to gather input from political parties and modify the nation’s constitution. The revised document was published in mid-June 2011, and went under voter scrutiny in July 1 of that year. The constitutional reforms were approved by 98.5% of votes cast, in a referendum which saw the participation of 73-74% of the electorate.

Through its formal constitutional powers, the monarchy remains the country’s primary executive, although the 2011 reforms strengthened both the parliament and the elected government. According to the constitution, the king is the head of state, commander-in-chief of the armed forces and the highest religious leader in the country, with the title “Commander of the Faithful”. As head of the Supreme Court, as well as the Supreme Council of the judiciary, which is charged with appointing the remaining members of the Supreme Court, the king also has a strong role in the country’s justice system. Appointments to Morocco’s Constitutional Court, which determines whether or not new laws comply with the country’s constitution, are divided between the king, who appoints six of the 12 judges, and the parliament, charged with choosing the remaining six. The court’s president is also appointed by the king.

Legislative power resides in the country’s bicameral parliament, which is split between the directly elected Chamber of Representatives (the lower house of parliament), composed of 325 members elected to five-year terms, and the Chamber of Councillors, (upper house), with 120 members serving six-year terms, and who are chosen by the country’s regional councils, trade unions and professional associations. The prime minister is selected from the largest political party in parliament, with the appointment confirmed by the monarch. The Council of Ministers is chosen by the head of government in consultation with the king, and is composed of members of the ruling party or coalition.

Elections

Participation in elections in Morocco had been decreasing over several years, reaching around 37% in 2007. This was reversed in 2011, with a participation increase of around 45%, an encouraging sign of the positive impact the government’s constitutional reforms had on improving turnout. Whether the trend continues will be seen after the next round of municipal elections, which are currently scheduled for September 2015. This will be the first electoral test after the 2011 constitutional reforms. In early 2015 a poll conducted by the Abderrahim Bouabid Foundation in conjunction with Casablanca-based Averty Market Research & Intelligence found that 83% of respondents were not affiliated with any political party and 54.9% admitted to never having voted.

In July 2011, following the amendments of the constitution by referendum, the Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party (Parti de la Justice et du Développement, PJD) won 107 of the 325 seats available in the lower house of parliament, allowing it to form a governing coalition with Istiqlal, a centrist nationalist party, and several other smaller parties. However, in mid-2013 Istiqlal left the ruling coalition, opening the door for another party, the National Rally of Independents, to take its place.

Political Parties

Moroccan party politics has traditionally been highly fragmented, with no party managing to dominate parliament or even win more than a fairly small share of the vote. Consequently, governments invariably consist of large coalitions. The present coalition government is headed by the PJD, winner of the 2011 elections.

The PJD is a moderately Islamist-leaning centrist party. One of the party’s most high profile policy goals has been to gradually dismantle the country’s subsidy mechanism that has allowed Moroccans easier access to certain basic goods but has, at the same time, had a negative impact on the country’s finances. During 2014 most fuel subsidies were removed, with the exception of the subsidy on butane gas, which is used across the country in homes, as well as some agricultural equipment.

Following the 2011 elections, PJD aligned with the Arab nationalist Istiqlal, the conservative Berber-dominated Popular Movement and the leftist Party of Progress and Socialism. Abdel-Ilah Benkiran, PJD’s secretary-general, took the role of head of government. This configuration marks the first time an Islamist-oriented party has served in a governing coalition. Benkiran’s accession also underscored a recent trend, bolstered by the 2011 reforms, in which governments have moved away from largely consisting of technocrats towards administrations with a stronger populist bent. The next general elections are scheduled to take place in 2016.

A disagreement related to the longstanding issue of subsidies led Istiqlal to abandon the coalition government. After losing its largest coalition party, the PJD was joined by the centrist National Rally for Independents. Other parties currently in parliament include the USFP, with a left-leaning stance, and the opposition Party of Authenticity and Modernity, a recently formed centrist grouping.

Foreign Relations

Over recent decades, Morocco’s foreign relations have been largely shaped by challenges to its claims of sovereignty over the south of the country, known collectively as the Moroccan Sahara, or Western Sahara. A pivotal moment in the discussions over sovereignty came in 1975 through a 350,000-person popular protest known as the Green March, which was organised by King Hassan II to demonstrate the validity of Morocco’s claims over what was then a Spanish colony.

The move subsequently sparked a low-level insurgency from local political communities, including the Sahrawi pro-independence movement, the Polisario Front, which had been opposing Spanish rule for several years beforehand, and was backed by neighbouring Algeria.

In 1991 a UN-backed cease-fire agreement put an end to the armed conflict, but negotiations over the final status for the territory, the establishment of borders and the fate of refugees living on the Algerian side of the border, close to the town of Tindouf, have continued with no conclusion as of yet. Over the past decade, Morocco has offered the Polisario Front the possibility of regional autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty, but the Polisario Front has continued to insist on a popular referendum for full independence. The issue has impacted Morocco’s relations with neighbouring Algeria, which has traditionally supported the Polisario Movement and has hosted Sahrawi refugees in makeshift camps in Tindouf. The strained relationship has affected trade between the two countries, especially after the 1994 closing of their land border. In 2013 diplomatic tempers were again heightened after Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika made statements regarding human rights violations on Morocco’s part, which prompted Rabat to recall its ambassador to Algeria in response.

On a regional scale, the strained relationship between Morocco and Algeria has blocked the development of the African Maghreb Union, a regional body which includes Tunisia, Mauritania and Libya. The Moroccan/Western Sahara issue has also impacted relations between Morocco and the African Union (AU), of which Rabat decided to extricate itself three decades ago despite being a founding member, after the AU recognised the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, which is the de facto Polisario state-in-exile.

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