The Moorish Wanderer

Political Campaigning in Morocco – Vol.1

What can we do to improve political campaigning in Morocco? Obviously, the question is over-ambitious, simply because one cannot write-off about half a century of electoral campaigning techniques and, most importantly, the state of mind evolving from the campaign format. Still, we need a radical overhaul – so as to match the Moroccan people’s expectations.

First off, and contrary to the ambient opinion, we need to look closely at the very first campaign ever contested in independent Morocco, the 1963 Elections. These elections, and the subsequent consultations, have a critical impact on the way candidates, political parties and the administration behave and think; it is therefore not only right, but essential to understand the mechanisms that preside over the very early elections, because these are very similar, if not the same, to those put to use, say during the 2007 general and 2009 local elections.

The very first elections contested in Morocco date back to May, 17th 1963. these followed a heated referendum campaign -on which evidences of fraud and administrative meddling did not invalidate a 97% surreal score of  “Yes”. The 1962 Constitution, with its inherent flaws, at least managed to provide some workable legislative framework for the opposition parties, UNFP and Istiqlal. Nonetheless, the time lag between the official announcement for and the election kick off was suspiciously short (a month after His Majesty’s speech, on April 17th, 1963) but that did not prevent existing political parties to prepare for election: Istiqlal and UNFP, though still suspicious of each other’s motive, formed a de facto alliance against the FDIC, an  ad hoc group hurriedly put together by a confident of Hassan II, with the Mouvement Populaire, Ahmed Guédira’s Parti Socialiste Démocratique and, more bizarrely, the Choura and Istiqlal Party, all together in the Front de Défense des Institutions Constitutionnelles (FDIC).

Here, size and strength were valuable assets, indeed, Istiqlal was more prepared compared to UNFP (something that might have to do with the increasing repression from the regime) and as early as April 13th,  and made the double safe choice to endorse candidates unlikely to cause problems to almost-brother-in-arms UNFP as well as traditional notabilities. Ben Barka‘s party reciprocated in a more discreet fashion, while excluding pro-UMT union from the candidates’ short-lists. Because both parties have good experience in partisan organization, FDIC campaign seems unsure of itself and there was a confusion between spontaneous local candidacies and the official endorsement from on top, all of which did not help reassure the electorate about how serious a new coalition of parties is in its claim to be the natural coalition of government (as it was already the case under the Premiership of king Hassan II).

690 candidates competed for 144 seats, and the campaign kicked off officially on May, 2nd. Overall the tone was quite violent (although more verbally so in newspapers than it was during public meetings) and arguments can qualify, in modern campaigning jargon, as ‘negative campaigning’: Istiqlal and its media spokesperson, Al Alam, maintained sustain criticism of the perceived potential power abuse:

Elle le somme de se démettre de ses fonctions de Directeur général du Cabinet royal et de Ministre de l’Intérieur pour ne pas compromettre le Souverain dans les luttes politiques et ne pas influencer le déroulement des élections. Cette tactique permet de ne pas mettre directement le Roi en cause tout en le mettant en garde contre les dangers de la situation présente. [L’élection de la chambre des représentants au Maroc, Octave Marais – Annuaire d’Afrique du Nord 1963]

Overall, public meetings are the preferred way to get in touch with the electorate, especially in large cities like Casablanca; In smaller cities or rural regions, all parties try their best to attract local notabilities, as the only efficient mean to attract the largest possible count of voters, though FDIC candidates have the benefit of biased neutrality in their favour from local authorities (Moqadem, Cheikh, Khalifa, etc…) a support Istiqlal and UNFP desperately denounce as the hand of the administration meddling in political elections.

Mehdi Benbarka during an electoral meeting, 1963

On the media side, each party rely on their own newspaper to influence voters, though such mean quickly reaches its limitation in view of the high illiteracy rates, and the effect of the media remain confined to urban centres: UNFP has ‘المحرر’ Istiqlal ‘العلم’, while FDIC, thanks to its limitless resources, fielded more than one newspaper, and many of those were French-speaking: ‘Les Phares’ ‘La Clarté’ and ‘وطنك’; the FDIC propaganda, while engaging in the same negative campaigning the opposition got stuck with, also entertained a certain confusion in its message: it denigrated Istiqlal leader Allal El Fassi, and at the same time orchestrated a large-scale cult of personality to the benefit of Hassan II, so as to induce voters to think of FDIC as ‘the King’s party’ (and conversely, of UNFP and Istiqlal as subversive bodies).Parallel to the media campaign, FDIC relies on repetition of colours and symbols -rather than words and content- to capture the voters’ attention (and memory)

“Les affiches et les tracts sont moins faits pour être lus que pour être vus et pour imposer par leur répétition la couleur des bulletins du parti et la photographie des candidats”.

The impression observers had on this election was puzzling: candidates looked very much active (even activist) during campaigning, as well as fully aware of the issues involved. The electorate, however, seemed far from understanding what the elections was about. Save perhaps for UNFP, whose campaign in large coastal cities (Rabat, Agadir, Casablanca to name a few) managed to yield comfortable majorities to the candidates (soon members of parliament)  Subsequently, the political message or any kind of manifesto item were skipped in favour of presentational stunts:

“Durant la campagne, certains candidats, appartenant à tous les partis […] s’efforcent d’acquérir la sympathie de leurs concitoyens en restaurant les anciennes coutumes d’hospitalité ostentatoire. Ils tiennent table ouverte en permanence, accueillant les fqih et les tolbas, secourent les nécessiteux…”

This gives the big picture, a very brief summary of the campaign (and there were important similarities between the local and legislative elections in 1963) Now, what about the techniques? what was written in the leaflets for instance? Or what kind of speech was made when meetings were organized? How party activists were indeed organized to convey their party’s message?

In Rural areas, private meetings with local notabilities were more efficient, especially when there was only one candidate ‘in town’ – these notabilities in turn directed their fellow neighbours to vote for the candidate of their choice. These local leaders had good chance to obtain votes, either because of their social status within the local tribe, or because of their charisma (equivalently, a local teacher can have about the same reach as a local fqih for instance) This heavy reliance on local intermediaries partially made up for the weak partisan structure: both Istiqlal and UNFP had no extensive branches in rural areas (the largest electoral population) and FDIC parties, especially MP, had but these local notabilities to relay their manifesto.

An example of this weak partisan grasp over local matter can be found in the delay of a week Istiqlal had to endure before a top-down assignment can be communicated to the local branches – during the 1963 local elections, the alleged UNFP “July 1963 plot” broke up the fragile alliance between both parties, and some Istiqlal moderate started to defect to FDIC, even as central Istiqlal organs wanted to show solidarity with UNFP. In Urban areas however, the scheme was common to all parties: leaflets and posters with distinctive colours and pictures of candidates, large public meetings trying to attract as many citizens as possible, though the most efficient mean was again to get in touch with intermediaries, small gatherings of less than 15 persons. the message matters little; but that might have to do more with the narrow target of educated voters.

In any case, these basic electoral tactics -the reliance on local leaders rather than reaching for a larger audience, as far as the duo Istiqlal-UNFP is concerned, were dictated under the circumstances of dire resources (a deposit of MAD 1,000 per candidate was required, not to mention expenses for printing leaflets and posters, newspapers edition and related cost for meetings, diners, invitations of notabilities, etc. All these expenses were necessary for the opposition parties because other means, more powerful (like the radio) were not available to them; UNFP campaigned in a crisis mode (as many candidates were either arrested or beaten during the campaign); that explains why party activists did poorly in linking to the electorate, or why traditional means of conveying their respective parties’ message.

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