The Moorish Wanderer

To Boycott, Or Not Boycott, That is not the Question

Posted in Flash News, Read & Heard, Tiny bit of Politics by Zouhair ABH on May 23, 2011

Yesterday has been a black day. It’s a setback for freedom of expression in Morocco, as for democracy, it has been already compromised by sad omens on the upcoming . In the rarefied circles of power, partisans of brute force seem to have now the upper hand.

A fellow blogger and friend of mine (who shall remain nameless) has recently appraised me of his decision to boycott the referendum. While I respect his stand, I was surprised. Surprised because I know him to be no Annahj, nor Al Adl sympathiser. And even though we disagree on a number of things and issues, we share a certain fascination for economic analysis, so it came as a surprise, when he told me he did not want to register. The explanation of such decision, as well as the methodology, so to speak, astounded me, simply because I have never heard of it.

A thing or two before I elaborate on that: I do not pretend to elicit some generalized pattern from my friend’s resolve not to contribute in any electioneering, nor do I have the pretence to assess the ‘mood of the nation’. This post is merely a pondered response to a hasty argument we had. I do hope there will be some reciprocation, so as to have a comprehensive view of this rather unusual boycott. Blog posts are much better than tweet snaps, I think.

My friend boycotted the registering campaign. I also understood he did not register for past elections (say 2009, 2007 and 2002 at least) so he is, quite simply, not existent as a voter and elector. Paradoxically, his all-out opposition to any kind of ‘compromise’ disenfranchised him. I don’t know if he buys into that idea that civics is a title one works out to qualify for it. but if one abdicates the right to vote, then there isn’t much left out of citizenship and civics, is there?

Worse still, his voluntary disenfranchisement does not hurt the façade of democracy he wants to do away with. Suppose a million potential voters, like my friend, reached the same conclusion, and decided not to register. Out of an electoral corps of nearly 14 Million, that is certainly no big loss. It only means one million less voters, certainly not one million blank votes, or one million-short turn-out. Because he did not bother to register, on the contrary, the yielded result is contrary to his initial aims.

Besides, that all-out opposition is almost farcical. When taken to its logical conclusion, my friend should basically renegade on his Moroccan citizenship. The argument goes as follows: Political ‘game rules’ are so biased I will not soil myself into accepting the rule-maker’s guidelines, so I will step aside. The trouble is, the very same lawmaker edicts game rules in many other ‘games’: Why accept the proceedings for ID Card, or Passport? Why did he accept to receive a Scholarship when he was student? Isn’t that an explicit recognition of the lawmaker and their supremacy over game design? And why, if he was so keen not to get involve with these rules, did he accept to submit to Moroccan regulations over one of the most important contracts he would have ever signed up for? The answer, it seems, is transparent: Because he was compelled to do it. Voting is voluntary, and the choice led to what I called ‘intellectual laziness’.

The word is perhaps too strong. Contrary to any stereotyped ideas about it, intellectual laziness is a very logical, very thorough process. It is basically a cost/benefits analysis. His position can be summed up in the following question: “Why bother to vote in a referendum, if nothing new or more congenial to my own definition to democracy comes out of it?”. The cost of registering, campaigning or just trying to link up with acquaintances and convince them to follow suit is time consuming and costly in resources and efforts. Besides, here’s a very simple and cost-free way to rebuke the façade democracy Moroccan regime tries so hard to put on; Low turnout and high blank votes. Better still, define yourself out of that herd-like electoral corps, and break away as a free (wo)man.

This is intellectual laziness because the benefits of staying out of political confrontations (on ideas, projects and ultimately, streets) are overweighted compared to the incurred costs in following a different course of actions. My friend, it seems, does not understand he is, whether he likes it or not, part of Pareto’s “non-governmental elite”. Perhaps Elite embodies too much connotations as a word; Some sort of alternative ruling apparatus. He has a duty not to shrink away from these things;

My criticism -because that’s what it is, though there is no anger behind it- is rooted in the fact his gesture is futile. He wanted to boycott the referendum, but he only managed to mute his own voice by not registering. Others found time to go to the registering booth, put their names down on the list, and vowed, on Referendum Day, not to turn out to vote, or put on the ballot a blank vote. This is real boycott, and the political message carried out has a meaningful impact. A low turn out and/or a high proportion of blank votes is always a slap on the face of our much adorned image of ‘Regional Exception’, and is difficult to spin around as the symbol of contentment among Moroccan citizens. So my friend and colleague not only muted his own voice, but by doing so carried no significant political message to the regime. Not only does he fail to use his citizen right, but he managed to cut himself out of it. It’s mother’s milk for the regime if guys like him do not bother to register altogether, because no one pays attention to the size of electoral votes relative to potential voters. Media attention focuses on turnout and blank votes, nothing more.

I do hope he will reconsider his position; It ‘s too late to register again, but in his own mind, this idea of refusing to have anything to do with the regime as a proof of ‘intellectual resistance’ is adulterated by logical flaws. Whether we like it or not, our political regime is well established and dug in. It has loyalties (paid for or genuine) and has all monopolies of symbolic power. Resistance is not to step aside of the whole structure, but to step in, register and then, following each one’s state of mind, vote in favour, against or boycott the referendum. To refuse the right to vote, on the other hand, has no use.

A Citizen’s Gesture

Fellow blogger @Larbi_org used to exercise his wit at my expenses: intellectuals are all talk and talk, but no walk. First off, I have to say I am honoured to be bestowed such a title (I don’t mind the negative connotation attached to it, and as a matter of fact, the title would do nicely as a badge of honour)  What I do crave, on the other hand, is the rough-and-tumble of political campaigning, the engagement with the electorate, that enticing feeling of uncertainty when the local policeman or mokhazeni is likely to bark his orders forbidding ‘political agitation on the street’… And even though I am at the moment an expatriate student, I do have now the opportunity to take the argument to field application, so to speak.

This is going to be the moment of truth: All past referendums have been muted campaigns, a constant media hammering for a ‘Yes’ Vote (Those who experienced some of them surely remember ‘صوتوا بكل حرية على نعم’) and any brazen attempt to call for a contrarian opinion, or even worse, to call for a boycott were either jailed or beaten out of the street. I would like to wager the present security officials are not that dumb, and will allow some sort of dissident expression over the matter. Whatever the outcome in June, the constitutional draft is bound to satisfy some, dissatisfy others. The former will call for a vote in favour of yet another more democratic constitution, while the latter will usually split between those who vote against (not because they were content with the earlier version, but because they had wanted a different constitutional modus operandi) and those who gainsay the whole system, maximalists eager to inflict upon the regime some sort of rebuttal by trying to get the largest amount of people to boycott what they consider to be a political farce.

This is democracy, and plurality of opinions is to be expected, whatever comes out from the June deadline. Many of my friends and acquaintances want to adopt a wait-and-see attitude before making their minds up over the referendum, and I do respect their prudence. As for me, and because I know no good can come up from ageing and conservative law scholars, my mind is already made up. (right from March10th, actually). This, however, is partisan politics. There is a higher level, upon which the argument is no longer between the Yes and No, but between Participation and Boycott. I like to think civic behaviour dictates all of us should participate to the referendum, but again, the pro-boycott are entitled to their opinion, and should be respected. But to the undecided (and there is no need for polling to know they represent a majority of likely voters) these are the ones that need to be convinced of registering; And more precisely, those of us, expatriated students.

As of today, as a Moroccan citizen, a students’ society member and as a party member -in that order- I am campaigning to sign my fellow Moroccans up for the referendum. As you may know, the authorities are renewing their electoral listings (closed on May 21st), and it is an opportunity for those of us who did not vote on earlier referendums or elections, as well as for those who moved out in between elections, to register and make their voices heard.

My little stand, my little contribution to civic nihilism.

As an expatriate student, it is quite hard to doorstep fellow students and countrymen in exile, and convince them to take a day off and head to the nearest consulate (sometimes located very far from their domiciles) it is also hard to convince people just to vote; remarks like “why bother?” or “I don’t know what to vote for, better wait till June” are all sensible objections to what is seemingly a romantic stand on democracy and civics, but there remains the crucial point to be made: we need to make our voices heard.

Many of those who read past posts know I am voting ‘No’ in any case (save the one when M. Menouni decides to grow some balls and come up with a ground-breaking, earth-shattering memorandum such as this one) so why bother in trying to sign people up? many of whom are likely to vote ‘Yes’ because, well… it’s a new constitution. Don’t I have a vested interest in trying to sway the people’s votes and get them to see my own way?

Indeed I do. But that’s the beauty of applied democracy: what matters now is not what to vote for, but why bother turning out to the polling station (in my case and in the case of those I am appealing to, a consulate) and vote for something that, in all probability, does not affect the everyday life every one of us is carrying out with.

In short, pluck up your courage, gather all your civic spirits, your ID Card, Passport and Residence Permit (if applicable) and head off to the nearest Moroccan consulate, wherever you are. You owe it to your country and fellow citizens.

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.