As a historic link between Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, the kingdom of Morocco has long served as an important political juncture. The country’s 12 regions range from Mediterranean ports to the rugged Atlas Mountains and the vast Sahara. The kingdom’s political and cultural dynamics are equally diverse, shaped by Arab, Berber, European and West African influences. To date, Moroccan leadership has worked to achieve moderate domestic and foreign policies to ensure the country maintains its role as a politically stable and increasingly democratic centre.
MODERN HISTORY: Colonial powers France and Spain, both attracted to Morocco’s strategic coastline and natural resources, maintained zones of influence across the country into the 20th century, formalised by the 1912 Treaty of Fez, which established the country as a French protectorate. The agreement kept a sultan on the throne – though the role was largely symbolic – and allocated several regions along the north coast to Spanish control. In the following decades, influenced by growing anti-colonial sentiment across North and West Africa, a rising nationalist movement called for Morocco’s independence. After engaging in several years of violence throughout the region, particularly in Algeria, France completed negotiations with Morocco in 1956 and Sultan Mohammed V was installed as king the following year, shifting the royal role from that of a powerless figurehead to the central source of political control.
Mohammed V ruled only for a few years before being succeeded in 1961 by his son, Hassan II, who served as king until 1999 and established an overarching governance ideal – one of both modernisation and respect for tradition – that persists to this day. His rule was marked by some dissent, including two attempted military coups in 1971 and 1972, that contributed to the consolidation of power at court. Hassan II served as the head of the executive branch and drafted a revised constitution, and during a period of a “state of exception” from 1965-70 assumed both executive and legislative powers. However, Hassan II is generally considered to have been a moderate ruler in a turbulent period, allowing Morocco to solidify partnerships with a broad range of Western and Arab allies.
The current king, Mohammed VI, assumed the throne in 1999. Following in his father’s footsteps, he launched into a series of reforms starting in 2002, when he established a new system of elections, strengthened women’s rights, raised the minimum marriageable age and introduced Berber-language education. By 2010 King Mohammed VI had announced the formation of a new consultative body to help further modernise state institutions.
ARAB SPRING: While Morocco was not untouched by the Arab Spring protests, which began in December 2010, the kingdom witnessed fewer violent episodes and did not experience a seismic regime shift. This is credited in part to King Mohammed VI’s prompt response to the protests. In February 2011 marches began across the country calling for the monarchy to limit its power. By the following month, the king announced his decision to amend the constitution to fully transition the country to a constitutional monarchy, with an independent Parliament and executive power shared between the prime minister and the king. The reforms, passed in a July 2011 referendum, also called for “advanced regionalisation”, or the devolution of increased power to local government, seen in Morocco’s first direct local and municipal elections in 2015. This ongoing process is intended to make for a more participatory governance system, while also allowing elected officials to provide tailored policy responses to the unique needs of their constituents.
CURRENT POLITICAL STRUCTURE: The king maintains oversight in the constitutional monarchy which has been in place since 2011, comprising executive, legislative and judicial branches. On the executive side, there is a prime minister appointed by the king from the majority party following legislative elections. The Council of Ministers, responsible for crafting high-level strategy on issues including finance, war and the constitution, is selected by the prime minister in consultation with Parliament and officially appointed by the king. The king remains the head of the army, religious authorities and the judiciary.
The Parliament is composed of two bodies: the lower house, known as Majlis Al Nuwab (House of Representatives), and the upper house, Majlis Al Mustasharin (House of Councillors or Advisers). The House of Representatives consists of 395 seats, of which 305 members are directly elected to five-year terms and the remaining 90 seats filled by members elected at the national constituency level, with 60 seats reserved for women and 30 reserved for those under the age of 40. The last House of Representatives election was held in October 2016 with the next scheduled for autumn 2021. The House of Councillors has 120 seats elected by indirect universal suffrage, of which 72 are filled by local constituencies for six-year terms. Electoral colleges comprising representatives from various institutions decide the remaining seats. An electoral college from selected professional associations selects 20 members, while 20 more are chosen by employee representatives and eight come from employer professional organisations.
The next elections will coincide with those for the House of Representatives in 2021. Parliament can initiate laws, as can the prime minister, and both houses vote on all bills. The king appoints members of the Supreme Council of the Judiciary. While some important strides have been made through the establishment of the Administrative and the Commercial Courts under Hassan II, the judiciary is still not considered to be fully independent from the political structure.
POLITICAL PARTIES: Unlike many African and Arab states, Morocco developed a multi-party political system soon after its independence from France, as laid out in its 1962 constitution, rather than allowing a single party to dominate in a newly post-colonial era. According to Moroccan law, one party cannot have a majority in Parliament and instead must form coalition governments. Today there are more than 30 active political parties in Morocco, but power is largely consolidated in three leading groups.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (Parti de la Justice et du Développement, PJD) has been the dominant party in Parliament since the 2011 elections. While Islamist, the PJD is often described as less ideological than other Islamist parties in the region, separating political efforts from a purely religious movement. As explained by Morocco scholar Mohamed Daadaoui in the international press, “The PJD has realised that a rigid Islamist ideology would not be conducive to its own existence.” The second-largest party is the Authenticity and Modernity Party (Parti de l’Authenticité et de la Modernité, PAM). Founded in 2008 in opposition to the PJD, the name itself is meant to invoke King Hassan II’s vision of modernising Morocco while staying true to its traditional roots. Many Moroccans perceive PAM to prioritise loyalty to the monarchy, which has earned it some criticism. The third-most-popular party is the conservative Istiqlal or Independence Party. Founded in 1944 to lead Morocco’s nascent nationalist independence movement, it is the oldest in the country. Remaining legislative power is largely divided among the Popular Movement (Mouvement Populaire, MP), the Party of Progress and Socialism (Parti du Progrès et du Socialisme, PPS), and the National Rally of Independents (Rassemblement National des Indépendants, RNI).
ELECTIONS: In October 2016 these and other smaller political parties competed for seats in parliamentary elections. The PJD, which had been running a coalition government led by then Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane, maintained its position as the largest parliamentary party by winning 125 seats. PAM came in second with 102 seats – doubling its 55 seats from the previous 2011 election – followed by Istiqlal with 46 seats. The RNI took 37 seats and MP took 27. Turnout among the 16m electorate was 43%, according to Mohamed Hassad, the former minister of interior, but other estimates put this figure closer to 30%.
The elections were considered free and fair by the international community, however, the results led to over six months of impasse as the PJD failed to form a government due to infighting among parties with divided loyalties. The new coalition government was finally officially appointed on April 5, 2017 after King Mohammed VI replaced Benkirane with Saad Eddine El Othmani, a former minister of foreign affairs and the party’s secretary-general. The installed coalition controls 240 out of 395 seats in the House of Representatives and consists of six parties across the political spectrum, including the left wing PPS and Socialist Union of Popular Forces, the liberal RNI and Constitutional Union, and the conservative PM.
REFOCUSED PRIORITIES: While post-election delays slowed political momentum, once installed, the new government began moving forward with several new initiatives. As noted by the World Bank, this included plans to announce a new programme to implement constitutional reforms, focus on providing increased governance resources at a regional level, upgrade social services and promote job creation. In April 2017 Parliament approved the preliminary 2017 budget. Notable public investments include Dh8.9bn (€824.1m) to support agriculture, which is still the country’s largest employer; Dh3.7bn (€342.6m) for industry; Dh11.7bn (€1.1bn) for renewable energy; and Dh20bn (€1.9bn) for port construction.
MILITARY PRESENCE: As laid out in a paper by US-based think tank, the Middle East Institute, Morocco’s armed forces do not enjoy as much political clout as many other militaries in nearby regional powers, due in part to the two coup attempts against King Hassan II in 1971 and 1972. Of the armed forces, which include the Royal Armed Forces, the Royal Moroccan Army, Navy, Air Force and the Gendarmerie Royale, the latter is considered to be more politically influential, led by Housni Benslimane since 1972. According to the World Bank, Morocco’s military spending as a percentage of GDP was 3.4% in 2016, about half of neighbour Algeria’s, which was 6.5%.
SOCIO-POLITICAL THEMES: Morocco continues to grapple with both internal and external socio-political challenges. As is the case across the region, maintaining stability is linked directly to the provision of economic opportunity, particularly for the growing youth population for whom the unemployment rate was estimated at 26.5% in 2017, according to the High Planning Commission. In the build up to the October 2016 elections there was even discussion of some youth boycotts. This is seen more in historically marginalised areas, such as the northern region of Rif.
As reported by the International Crisis Group (ICG), protests demanding jobs persist in the region, which was also the centre of protests in October 2016. Externally, the kingdom remains vulnerable to Islamic extremism threats. Moroccans returning from fighting with the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Libya and Syria are of particular concern for authorities. According to the ICG, the government has arrested a number of IS-linked cells allegedly planning attacks. Keeping security incidents out of the headlines is also critical to avoid a negative impact on tourism, which directly contributed 8.1% to GDP in 2016 and is forecast to grow, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council.
OUTLOOK: Sustaining any economic growth momentum will remain inextricably linked to Morocco’s reputation as a politically stable, secure harbour in an increasingly unsettled neighbourhood. If the kingdom can sustain its balancing act of working to provide domestic freedoms and opportunity while maintaining security, it is likely to remain a leading regional power.