Stable transitions: Political power is being shared more widely

The past few years have seen Morocco undergo some significant changes, yet the kingdom has maintained its tradition of social and political stability even amidst broader turmoil. The 10-year anniversary of King Mohammed VI’s ascension to the throne in 2009 offered Morocco the chance to take stock of its political evolution over the past decade, and with some satisfaction. The western-most Arab state has come a long way since the turn of the millennium, and has taken large strides over the past couple of years, rolling out a new constitution in 2011 that introduced significant reforms while moving to leverage its diplomatic clout in regional fora.

POLITICAL HISTORY: The country in ancient times hosted Phoenician settlements along the coast and later saw parts of the country, along with the local Berber population, conquered by Rome. In the late 7th century Morocco was conquered by Arab armies that quickly converted the local population to the new religion of Islam. A series of local Islamic dynasties subsequently consolidated rule over the territory comprising Morocco, including the Almoravids, Almohads and Merinids, culminating in the rise to power in the 17th century of the Alaouite dynasty, which continues to rule the country today.

In subsequent centuries, parts of Morocco fell under foreign control: Portugal and to a lesser extent Spain established a number of coastal outposts in the kingdom in towns such as Mogador (now Essaouira) and El Jadida between the 15th and 17th centuries. Ceuta on the Tangiers Peninsula and Melilla on the Mediterranean coast remain Spanish exclaves today. Oujda, in the east of the country, also fell under Ottoman and French rule.

However, unlike the rest of North Africa, most of Morocco retained its independence until the early 20th century, avoiding domination by both the Ottomans and various European empires. Despite this, in 1912 European powers agreed to allow France to establish a protectorate over the kingdom, while Spain also established a protectorate in the northeast, running roughly from the Tangiers Peninsula to the Algerian border. The royal family was allowed to remain nominally in charge. Over the years as opposition to French rule grew, initially under the leadership of the conservative-nationalist Istiqlal (independence) party and then the monarchy itself. In 1956, beleaguered by war in Algeria, France capitulated to rising nationalist pressure and granted Morocco complete independence.

POLITICAL CHALLENGES: In 1961, following a splintering of political parties and the emergence of the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (Union Socialiste des Forces Populaires, USFP) out of the Istiqlal hierarchy, King Mohammed V died, leading to the ascendance to the throne of his son, Hassan II. Hassan II’s rule saw Morocco align closely with the Western bloc in the Cold War, a period when the state also exerted heavy-handed control over political and social discourse, which led to the subsequent decades being labelled as the “years of lead”.

In 1975 Hassan II took control of the Western/Moroccan Sahara, a territory to the south of Morocco from which colonial power Spain was in the process of withdrawing. This sparked a war with the Sahrawi pro-independence movement, the Polisario Front, which had previously been fighting against Spanish rule and which received backing from Algeria. The war continued until 1991, when the UN brokered a ceasefire; however, the two sides have been unable to reach a final agreement over the status and future of the territory and remain at loggerheads. Military officers twice made attempts to overthrow Hassan II; however, both attempts failed and Hassan II remained in power until his death in 1999. The late 1990s saw a gradual political liberalisation, leading to the return of some political exiles and the establishment of a government led by the USFP.

Hassan II was succeeded by his son, Mohammed VI, who remains on the throne and turned 50 in August 2013. His son, Crown Prince Moulay Hassan II, is the first in line to succeed him. On coming to power Mohammed VI continued the trend of reform and political liberalisation begun by his father late in his rule. Key changes included the establishment of a truth and reconciliation committee to investigate past abuses, the partial liberalisation of the press, and changes to the family legal code (the Moudawana) to increase women’s rights in 2004.

The second decade of the millennium began with a new wave of reform measures. Against a backdrop of regional unrest and national uprisings, in 2011 the authorities established a royally appointed committee to propose changes to the constitution, including measures to transfer some powers from the monarchy to the parliament and the government, as well as to strengthen efforts to tackle corruption and improve transparency. The changes were passed by referendum in July that year, though as of early 2014, only a minority of the executing laws required to implement some the changes have been passed by parliament, meaning the full effect of the new constitution has yet to be felt. While Morocco did see the emergence of an Arab Spring-styled protest movement – so-called the 20 February Movement – demonstrations were small, compared to protests elsewhere in the region, and remained peaceful.

Late 2011 saw more change with the electoral victory of the Islamist-leaning Party of Justice and Development (Parti de la Justice et du Développement, PJD), which took 107 of the 325 seats available in the lower house of parliament. The party formed a coalition with Istiqlal and several smaller parties, though Istiqlal left the coalition in mid-2013, to be replaced by the National Rally of Independents (see analysis).

SYSTEM OF GOVERNMENT: Morocco is the only monarchy in North Africa. In March 2011 the king announced plans for constitutional reform, which was one of the primary demands of the protesters. To accomplish this, the monarchy-appointed a special commission, headed by a constitutional scholar, to collect input from the nation’s political parties and revise the state’s 1996 constitution. The commission published its new version of the document in mid-June, ahead of a referendum that was held on July 1, 2011. The referendum saw a significant voter turnout of around 74%, and the reforms were approved by 98.5% of votes cast.

Despite recent changes to the constitutional bolstering the powers of the parliament and the elected government, the monarchy still remains the most powerful overall political institution through its formal constitutional powers. Under the constitution, the king is head of state, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and the country’s Muslim religious leader, in his role of Commander as the Faithful. The king also heads the Supreme Court, which is the highest court in the country, as well as the Supreme Council of the Judiciary, which appoints the other members of the Supreme Court. He and parliament each appoint six of the 12 members of the Constitutional Court, which rules on whether laws comply with the constitution. The monarch also chooses the court’s president.

Additionally, the king is responsible for appointing the prime minster – choosing the leader from whichever political party has received the most votes during the most recent parliamentary elections. The head of government, in consultation with the monarch, selects the members of the Council of Ministers, who are drawn mostly from a coalition of the parliamentary parties that must be assembled in order to back the government. The national parliament consists of two houses; these are the directly elected Chamber of Representatives (lower house), which has 325 members, and the Chamber of Councillors (upper house), whose 120-seat members are indirectly elected by members of the regional councils, professional associations and trades unions DEVOLUTION: Historically, the autonomy of the various administrative sub-divisions – particularly the largest rank, known as regions – has been fairly limited, due in part to the tradition of centralised governance that the kingdom has followed for much of its history. However, over the past 15 years, the government has increasingly encouraged a greater devolution of powers to local and regional bodies.

The country is administratively divided into 16 regions, governed by regional governors (known as walis) and, at a lower level, prefectures, provinces and communes. Directly elected councils also exist at most levels of local government. Each region is overseen by a wali, who is appointed by the king. Regions are further divided into 42 provinces and 28 prefectures managed by governors. Currently, regional powers are largely limited to planning and zoning issues, although in 2006, the country began localising health administration, allowing regions to take greater control of their local facilities and helping to bring more advanced medical services to the country’s rural areas. At the end of 2008, the king presented a roadmap to advance the process of devolution throughout the kingdom, in a bid to “usher in a complete change from rigid centralised management” and allow residents to run their “local affairs democratically”. The roadmap, which was in part a response to the complex issue of sovereignty in the Western Sahara (see below), outlined a more robust process of devolution.

The roadmap gave particular priority to the reorganisation of administrative subdivisions in an attempt to improve accountability and better address the disparities between various regions within the country. This push was encapsulated in the new constitution, with article one containing a new clause stating that the “territorial organisation of the kingdom is decentralised, based on an advanced regionalisation”. The document contains a section on regional government, which was expanded to include measures to ensure local participation by citizens.

ELECTIONS: The elections for the Chamber of Representatives in 2007 was declared free and fair by both domestic and foreign observers, but marked by low turnout with only 37% of registered voters casting their ballots. Furthermore, around 20% of all of the ballots had to be discarded because they were spoiled or filled out incorrectly. There were numerous reasons for the poor turnout, which corresponded to common laments from democracies around the world, including a sense of disconnection from local politicians and an inability of representatives to address the basic concerns of their constituents. This spurred the Cabinet to attempt to rebuild confidence in Morocco’s governance process, an effort which has seen some success. The subsequent local elections in 2009 saw a much better turnout, with 52% of registered voters – approximately 7m people – participating. The election, which cost €48.2m to plan and administer, and which saw candidates jostling for contention of 27,795 seats in 1503 communities and districts, resulted in a surge of new elected officials. Of the 27,795 council members elected, only 39% were incumbents. Significantly, a number of these new representatives were women, with the proportion of female council members leaping from 1% to 12.3%. The most recent general elections in 2011 saw turnout rise from 2007 to 45%.

POLITICAL PARTIES: The current government is made up of a coalition of parties led by the PJD, which won the elections in 2011. The government formed a coalition with conservative Arab nationalist Istiqlal and a grouping of smaller parties, but a debate over subsidies led to a walk-out by Istiqlal. As of early 2014, other coalition members included the National Rally of Independents, which joined following a walk-out by Istiqlal; the Popular Movement, another administrative party that has strongholds in rural Berber areas; the left-leaning Party of Progress and Socialism; and several independents. Other main parties include the Istiqlal; left-leaning USFP; and the Party of Authenticity and Modernity, which was created in 2008 and has taken on an oppositional stance. The PJD has campaigned on issues such as tackling corruption and, though it supports the monarchy as an institution, acts with comparative independence.

Among the higher-profile political issues that the government has taken on are efforts by the PJD to reduce large subsidies that are provided on certain basic goods, such as fuel, which are putting an increasing strain on government finances and which, critics say, largely benefit the wealthy. Opponents of reform argue that proposed changes would seriously hurt Morocco’s burgeoning middle class.

WESTERN SAHARA & FOREIGN RELATIONS: undefined Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara has been disputed since 1975 and this has played a major role in shaping Moroccan foreign relations. Morocco has traditionally had poor relations with neighbouring Algeria, in large part because of the countries’ differing stances on the territory. Algeria supports and hosts the Polisario, as well as tens of thousands of Sahrawi refugees. The land border between the two countries has been closed since 1994, and in October 2013 Morocco withdrew its ambassador to Algeria in response to statements by the Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika alleging human rights violations. Poor relations between the two have also stalled the development of the regional body, the African Maghreb Union, of which Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania are also members, hampering efforts to boost regional trade. In protest at the African Union’s recognition of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (the Polisario’s state-in-exile), Morocco is not a member of the organisation. The UN’s special envoy, Christopher Ross, is undertaking a strategy of shuttle diplomacy to move the peace process forward. Since the mid-2000s Morocco has advocated a solution based on regional administrative autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty for the territory, while the Polisario continues to insist on a referendum with an option of full independence.

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This article is from the Country Profile chapter of The Report: Morocco 2014. Explore other chapters from this report.