Talks on forming a new government have stalled
MOROCCANS call it the “blockage”, as if their government is suffering from a medical condition. Three days after the Justice and Development Party (PJD), a moderate Islamist outfit, won the most seats in a parliamentary election on October 7th, King Muhammad VI asked its leader, Abdelilah Benkirane, to form a new government. More than three months later, Mr Benkirane is still trying. The power struggle has indeed put Morocco’s economic and political health at risk.
Morocco rode out the Arab spring better than most countries in the region. Big protests led to constitutional reforms and a relatively free and fair election in 2011, won by the PJD. The economy shows promise and the king pushes a mild version of Islam. By the standards of the region, it is a budding success—which makes today’s mess all the more disappointing.
It had seemed that the new government would look very much like the one before it, which was led by Mr Benkirane and included the PJD, the National Rally of Independents (RNI), the Popular Movement (MP) and the Party of Progress and Socialism (PPS)—with little to tell them apart, at least on economic policy. But earlier this month Mr Benkirane broke off talks with the RNI and the MP, which came fourth and fifth in the election. The leader of the RNI, Aziz Akhannouch, had made several demands on the PJD, such as including other parties in its coalition, which would weaken the Islamists.
Many Moroccans detect the hand of the king, who claims to stand above politics, in the manoeuvring. He and his royal court, known as the makhzen, have pushed the negotiations along, but some say they are interfering. Though he was forced to cede some powers to parliament in 2011, Muhammad VI remains firmly in charge of the country. Critics accused the palace of trying to swing the election to the secularist Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM), which came second. Having failed to get its way at the ballot box, they say it is using Mr Akhannouch to act on its behalf.
Mr Benkirane represents an unusual challenge to the palace. Charismatic and folksy, he has wide support among ordinary Moroccans. His democratic legitimacy stands in contrast to that of the king, whose family traces its bloodline to the Prophet Muhammad and has ruled Morocco for nearly four centuries. Muhammad VI is fairly popular—and is supported by Mr Benkirane. But some analysts see a burgeoning rivalry. “The makhzen doesn’t like that,” says Soulaiman Raissouni, the editor of Al Aoual, a news website. “They are trying to diminish the aura of Benkirane.”
The PJD took on the makhzen in its first term, publishing the names of individuals and companies favoured for government contracts. But Mr Benkirane, who often tries to avoid confrontation, also handed some powers back to the king. Nor did he challenge the palace on big issues. Some Moroccans, including members of his own party, would like him to be more assertive.
Others blame Mr Benkirane for Morocco’s mixed economic record since 2011. The unemployment rate is expected to remain above 10% this year. Corruption, which the PJD promised to tackle, is still a problem. But the previous government did implement needed reforms—such as cutting subsidies and freezing government hiring. Things were looking up, say analysts.
The blockage seems absurd to many Moroccans because, despite the criticism, most of the parties want to continue the policies of the previous government. “They have the same view, the same programme, the same liberal vision of the economy,” says Abdellah Tourabi, who hosts a political talk show. “No one can explain why these people are not able to meet and form a government.”
The blockage is now causing real damage. It seems unlikely that parliament will pass a budget on time, delaying the government’s reform programme. Economists are already talking about a gloomier business climate and lower investment.
It is not clear how the country will ultimately be unblocked. The constitution requires the king to ask the leader of the winning party to form a government—but it offers no Plan B. The king could call fresh elections (which the PJD would probably win), or ask the head of another party to form a government. For now, though, he is sticking with Mr Benkirane.
Despite all the drama, the most likely outcome is that the PJD will reach a deal with the RNI to create a government that, analysts say, will not last long. The damage done to Morocco’s nascent democratic institutions may be more enduring. Less than 40% of voters turned out in the election, and many are now starting to lose faith in the system.