What Would the Political Landscape Look Like in a Federal Morocco?
As many may already know, one of Morocco’s plight is its abnormal number of political parties. This has been mistaken for democracy -and often used as an argument that ‘Morocco is a democratic exception in the region‘- and often overlooked as the result of a ‘divide and conquer‘ policy from the Makhzen regime to insure its own political hegemony. What follows is a scenario that provides enough conditions to sort out this motley of political parties, and without substantial threats to political diversity but prevents the undesirable outcome whereby small political parties act pivotal in coalition governments, as it is the case in countries like Israel or Italy.
First, we need to point out that many of these political parties have common history, ideology and even leadership at one time. As a matter of fact, many of the breakaways were mainly ego clashes more than anything else. This is mainly due to the fact that political organizations in Morocco, whatever their professed position on the political spectrum, have been strongly identified with their leader. And the lack of internal democracy, as well as non-existent mechanisms for pacific competition and clear rules of power brokerage, or even the refusal of dissent within political parties in Morocco, whether from the National Koutla heritage or ‘Administrative Parties‘, made it possible for ambitious leaders to justify their departure from the mother-ship.
Abdellah El Hammoudi‘s seminal work, “Master and Disciple” finds ample field application here: without too much generalization or extensive use of stereotypes, political parties in Morocco act like ‘Zawyas’ (زاوية) or religious covens, with a father figure(head), a ” زعيم” whose authority, by means of political capital (as a former resistant, or as a proxy for political martyrdom) is unshakable and uncontested. This Zaim has some disciples gravitating around him (for the political world in Morocco is predominantly masculine) and, when the time comes (literally, when the leader is on his deathbed) a Dauphin is chosen. But it is often not the case; the leader clings to power so forcefully that, out of frustrated ambition, a disciple openly defies the master, and when the coup fails, the disciple leaves the political Zawias with his ‘Faithful’ flock and founds a new one, with him as the new Master, and so goes the story.
As a matter of fact, the splits have played a significant part in the founding myths of modern Moroccan politics: it is often claimed that the oldest political party in Morocco was the Istiqlal (founded with the well-known 1944 manifesto for Independence) what is little know was that earlier on, there were other pre-existing political organizations. Indeed, in 1934-1937, there was a rift between two main figures of modern Moroccan nationalism, both Fes-born Allal El Fassi, and Mohamed Belhassan Ouazzani. It seems a conflict of egos (as well as a dispute over Sherifian legitimacy, which Allal El Fassi lacked) led to a split between both man, and each one founded a new party out of the defunct Committee for National Action: El Fassi founded what became later on the Istiqlal and Ouazani Choura (or Democracy) and Istiqlal party.
The sociology of political parties however, is not always that linear. The script is not always observed, as there are from time to time attempts to unite, with a quasi-nostalgia for the ‘old days‘ when Istiqlal and UNFP, in face of adversity, tried as early as 1970 to build up a Koutla (the chosen word conveys the strong feeling about uniting the parties, at least in the leaders’ minds)
These structural weaknesses were exacerbated, if not outright created, by an explicit policy aiming at weakening the political field as much as possible to the benefit of the Monarchy: in 1959 with the UNFP breakaway from Istiqlal party, the Crown Prince was more than pleased to see the Istiqlal juggernaut split between its traditionalist clan and more left-wing faction. Even before, in 1957, and despite pungent opposition from Istiqlal civil servant, the Monarchy offered more than sympathetic support to the foundation of Mouvement Populaire (MP) as early as 1957.
These early examples of political intrigue look very benign when compared to the galloping rise in the number of political parties in the late 1990s. the late Interior Minister, Driss Basri elevated these breakaways to rarefied proportions: in the mid-1980s, and because of a minor row between stalwart monarchy supporter -and MP boss- Mahjoubi Aherdane and the late king Hassan II, Driss Basri orchestrated a breakaway led by a relatively young MP leader, Mohand Laenser. Aherdane had to leave and create his own political party, the MP (ever since, both parties, and a third one, Union Démocratique, coalesced back into the original MP)
This policy was even used against political parties that resisted the Royal Will: in 1996, and because of its uncompromising stand on the upcoming constitutional referendum tabled later that year, the Organisation d’Action Démocratique et Populaire (OADP) suffered a spin-off thanks -or because- of a discreet support from the Interior Ministry.
How would the political landscape look like in a federal monarchy? First, the number of political parties is likely to go down, but not in significant proportions: we stand now at about 30 parties, while a reduction to pre-2002 numbers would at least takes us back to more ‘reasonable’ levels.
Hopefully, with more democracy, transparency and accountability in the federal and regional institutions, political parties in Morocco will also learn that dissent within their organization is not a mortal danger, a fitna that needs to be put down as soon as possible, but the basic element of partisan democracy, and, in the long term, the essential ingredient for political vitality and political personal renewal. That would also mean a lowering in the average demographics from 70+ years old -for partisan politics is still, regrettably, a gerontocracy, though it can be argued that with age, wisdom withers away with politicians like Mahjoubi Aherdane, Mohamed EL Yazghi, Abbas El Fassi or the late Union boss Mahjoub Benseddik.
Some of the small parties have regional strongholds (sometimes because a party figurehead is popular there) and cannot go beyond that stronghold for a variety of reasons: difficulty to attract resources in an other area, not enough grass-roots activists to try and swing target constituencies back from other political parties, demographics, sociology, etc… But still, these parties can perform better, if given the opportunity to focus on local matters rather than over-ambitious nation-wide representation. In a federalist scheme (that has been ultimately rejected by the Regional Consultative Commission) there could be workable scenarii that can allow nationally small by strongly established in specific regions- parties to have a say in local matters, and at the same time retaining some leverage over federal issues, without stumbling into parliamentary civil war.
There can be no denying that political parties like USFP, Istiqlal, PJD or MP have de facto a nation-wide vocation for governing (real government in a genuinely democratic Morocco is a sine qua none working condition) In contrast, PSU, PADS and other smaller parties, cannot, with the current political arithmetics hope for sizeable numbers of seats on the federal level, but do retain strong majorities in specific areas, and could very well end up holding majorities in regional parliaments, or on par with the national parties.
On a local level, coalitions would therefore be established on ideological, rather than crude tactical reasons: I would argue that a left-left coalition in, say the Souss region encompassing the PSU, PADS and USFP would be much more powerful, much more coherent than the existing own between USFP and Istiqlal. In effect, homogenous coalitions are needed because, under my proposed schemes, regional houses need to send up representatives to the Federal Parliament, and usually these Members of Parliaments are supposed to reflect stable coalitions and some agreed-upon manifesto, all of which will be more difficult to sustain if currently observed patterns of alliances (with bizarre patchworks of centre-right RNI, centre-left USFP and conservative Istiqlal) are retained. Furthermore, and from a purely game-theoretical aspect, homogeneous coalitions (with respect to the local voters’ verdicts in local elections) tend to be closer to the peoples’ will, and for the senior coalition partners, a deterrent from straying away from manifesto commitment -otherwise, smaller parties can threaten to vote out the ‘consensus’ federal representative.
Does it sound familiar? Yes and no. Indeed, small parties will hold considerable leverage on nation-wide ones, directly on local matters, and indirectly by influencing their federal deputies. However, this mutual check mechanism ensures a ‘toe-the-line’ behaviour from the senior partners, something that is at odds with the observed pattern in governmental majorities since 1963 of weak coalitions and similarly weak governments; quite the opposite, I would argue that this seemingly unstable regional consensus ensure coherent nationwide majorities, and following, consistent parliamentary groups in the federal houses, thus enabling the very existence of a strong government. In effect, regional representatives are double checked and, held equally accountable: at a first level from the local constituents, and on a more institutional level, the regional coalition that send them up to Rabat.
With such heavy deterrent (not to mention party pressure to follow the party Whip’s lines) local representatives’ dissent or ‘transhumance‘ as they usually do will come at a high price for coalition partners, and in the intermediate run, to the dissenters themselves. On the other hand, federal representatives also know that their parties’ national majorities, when in government, are function of coalition agreements at a local level, and though deterrent pressure is mitigated as far as they are concerned, they remain equally compelled to bear with their parliamentary benches.
Of course, all of this is all right, but it remains fairy-tale as long as political parties themselves do not take actions in order to put order in their partisan houses: younger leadership, more transparent and meritocratic competition mechanisms, and more importantly, partisan democracy and the elevation of dissent from danger to democratic virtue.