- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 13, 2007


The legislative elections held last Friday in Morocco were a watershed in this country’s unbending march toward democracy.

Morocco has for a decade engaged in an increasing process of democratization. Though the state has ceased to interfere in the electoral process, turnout remains very low in urban centers, resulting in a national turnout of barely 37 percent. Those analysts who had hitherto been the harbingers of an Islamist outburst are the same today who put the low voter turnout down to ignorance.

Still, the voter issue is more complex than meets the eye, and hence does not amount to mere sociological factors… rather it is essentially political, involving three fundamental phenomena.

The first relates to the past. For 40 years, Morocco has lived a ferocious fight for legitimacy between the monarchy and the parties born out of the national sovereignty movement. The elections were gerrymandered by the government in favor of parties created from bits and pieces. With the vote not recognized as valid, constituents started to stay away from the polls.

The second relates to the first phenomenon. To overcome the earlier situation, the late Hassan II had invited the then-opposition to take part in the government. Participating for the last 10 years, and partaking in the significant reforms that have occurred, has not brought down the abysmal deficiencies at the social level, thereby creating apathy among the country’s constituents.

Lastly, the third phenomenon results from the executive character of the monarchy. The king has demonstrated great dynamism, and the monarchy is the guarantee of the fundamental choices the constituents have, hence diminishing the importance of other governmental institutions in the eyes of those constituents.

Over and above these three phenomena, one can also point out to the swelling numbers of parties — exactly 32 registered parties — with substantially similar programs, causing the competing parties to lose a significant chunk of their credibility.

Does the low turnout reflect a complete lack of interest of Moroccans in democracy? Absolutely not. Never before has the claim to citizenship been as strong as now. Moroccans stand up for their freedom of speech quite virulently … they speak up daily against the high cost of living, the misuses of authority and any other abuse of office. Thousands of associations and nongovernmental organizations have been created in recent years. In all spheres of life people have free expression.

Defending one’s personal way of life has become a tangible reality, mostly in the face of threats of mounting fundamentalist movements. We undeniably face a request for a further deepening of democratic structures, which is not reflected in the election outcome. Those who reduce democracy to the “one man, one vote” slogan are not capable of understanding its complexity.

In fact, the problem lies in the existing partisan structures. The left-wingers have created many political groups, with conflicting political opinions relating to priorities, particularly the constitutional question. These conflicts are often covered up because of thwarted personal ambitions. The parties, made up of old-line personages, have not managed to make way for the new elites, hence the mushrooming of small political groups dedicated to achieving their new leaders’ ambitions.

Against this backdrop, there is no further creation of ideas or of meaningful programs. That leaves an opening for the Islamists who are banking on the conservative-mindedness of society. To win back the voters’ trust and participation in elections, it is necessary to work out clear and courageous projects for action and break with maintaining a technical consensus that produces political lethargy.

More importantly, it has become necessary to give reasonable — yet real — responses to social expectations. The parties have missed the opportunity to do so in 2007, and the parliament coming out of these elections will be as weak as the one before it.

The credibility of any democratization process and of the institutions stemming from it relies on the conditions of its launch. In Morocco, this was born of a consensus and not of a rupture, which explains the fact that democratization is a slower, longer and less spectacular process. This does not, however, in any case diminish the exemplariness of an experience that has been strengthened despite or because of an unfavorable — not to say adverse — regional context.

Ahmed Charai is chairman of the Observateur electronic newspaper in Casablanca, Morocco (www.lobservateur.ma), and a trustees board member of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and a member of the board of directors of Search For Common Ground in Washington.

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