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.

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.

Foto de Alal al Fassi

Allal El Fassi (Image via Wikipedia)

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.

Mahjoubi Aherdane, a former colonial officer (like General Oufkir and Marshall Ameziane) presented with an award by king Hassan II.

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.

Parliament House, Rabat. Why not: "Federal Houses Of the Kingdom ?"

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.