The Influence of the Moroccan Monarchy, the PJD and the RNI: Islamists defeated by liberal parties in Morocco’s 2021 elections

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Morocco’s preliminary 2021 election results show that the Islamist PJD party have lost popularity while the liberal National Rally of Independents (RNI) party gained momentum. Morocco is a constitutional monarchy, with the king wielding enormous power. The country’s monarchy has a long history of co-opting and confining opposition groups, granting them considerable authority while the king and the palace’s shadow government of aides continue to remain in charge (Daadaoui). The king chooses the prime minister from the party with the most seats in parliament, who then forms a government and offers it to the monarch for confirmation. The PJD’s success or failure is critical because it is rare in the North African area where an Islamic party has gained power through a consensual political accord rather than through violent upheavals (Hissouf 43).

In a journal article titled “Monarchy and Political Reform in Morocco”, Associate Professor of Political Science at Duke University Abdeslam Maghraoui explains that the Moroccan monarchy’s political legitimacy is founded in traditional, symbolic order (73). However,  Maghraoui also points out that the monarchy; “is no longer regulated by hereditary personal qualities, nor is it necessarily unresponsive to modern social and political demands”(73). In recent years, the Moroccan monarchy has been praised for its extraordinary adaptation to changing socioeconomic realities as a result of global political and social advances. As a result of social representations having been successfully adopted and rebuilt by the monarchy, Blaiha Marouan and El Houcine Oughlane, the authors of “The Moroccan Monarchy and the Construction of Social Representations,” explain that the monarchy’s endurance is owed not just to its authoritative characteristics, but also to the cultural underpinnings of authoritarian relationships that exist throughout Moroccan culture (79).

According to the international specialist with 22-years of experience in the Arab and Francophone regions Abdellatif Hissouf, Morocco is more akin to the notion of an “executive monarchy,” in which authority is centralized in the hands of politicians based on the king (45);

[formal] democratic structures and institutions veil an informal shadow governance structure, commonly called the Makhzen…, a network of the palace and its clients that dictate the main lines of policy and act as a gatekeeper for any kind of political reform (Kausch 168).

Ultimately, in Morocco, the king heads the Council of Ministers, chooses the Prime Minister after parliamentary elections and appoints cabinet members. The king has significant constitutional privileges, which are strengthened by the fact that the monarch is selected based on his direct blood relation to the Islamic Prophet Muhammed; he is not only the secular government head but also the military commander (amīr).

Morocco’s King Mohammed VI announced a series of reforms on June 17, 2011, that would turn the country into a constitutional monarchy;

The new constitution is based on several principles:(1) to guarantee the rule of law, human rights, and political freedoms; (2) to increase judicial independence; (3) to guarantee that the prime minister will be chosen from the party that wins the most seats in parliament; (4) to strengthen the role of political parties and civil society; (5) to enhance transparency and continue the fight against corruption; (6) to enhance good governance and the protection of individual freedoms and (7) to enshrine ethnic minorities’ rights (Hissouf 46).

Morocco experienced noteworthy political and economic changes under Mohammed VI, despite significant obstacles. Under the first five years of the king’s rule, the administration permitted fairer elections, reduced media criticism, and acknowledged human rights crimes perpetrated during the late King Hassan II’s tenure (Abouzzohour 1). The year 2011 became highly crucial for Morocco since it was the same year that the regime implemented changes that somewhat curtailed its authority by a minor fraction. Most significantly, a political transition was proposed that required the prime minister to come from the party with the most votes and as a result, the number of diplomatic and senior administrative positions that could be directly nominated by the king was reduced (Abouzzohour 1). Morocco also saw the formation of its first Islamist party, the Justice and Development Party(PJD), in the same year. However, despite vows to create a more powerful and independent legislative branch, the era after 2011 has also seen increased authoritarian involvement in government activities (Abouzzohour 7). The PJD is an anti-terrorism party that holds an objective to protect Morocco’s Islamic character via legislation.

The conservative Islamic-democratic PJD party is also a supporter of the Moroccan monarchy. Following the recent constitutional amendments, 45 per cent of Moroccans voted to elect parliamentary members in November 2011, and, after spending more than 15 years in opposition, the PJD gained 107 seats out of 395. The Islamist PJD strategically placed itself as an alternative to established political parties by capitalizing on the country’s political and social unrest (Hissouf 49). Hissouf also reveals that, although the PJD openly supported the monarchy, the monarchy separated itself from the management of public affairs in order to avoid failure and accountability (49). Consequently, when it came to state issues, the king’s shadow government retained executive decision-making powers, while the “democratically” elected PJD Head of Government had no voice in these matters and was instead used to make controversial decisions so that the monarchy did not have to.

By 2013, the monarch’s attitude towards the PJD had altered considerably, and he began openly criticizing and expressing his disdain for the party’s initiatives. Hissouf writes that “In Mohammed VI’s early years as king, he refrained from such comments, but now he does not hide his disapproval of certain actions and initiatives led by the Islam-oriented PJD” (50). Following this, the king’s regime appeared to be obstructing the PJD from initiating any meaningful reform by exposing their lack of expertise in public government rather than fostering the conditions necessary to assist the country overcome the economic crisis and preserve stability (Hissouf 51). It is a given that, when it comes to the election process in Morocco, the monarch selects the prime minister from the party with the most seats, who then forms part of a coalition government, according to the country’s constitution. As a result, the PJD was confronted with a major stumbling block when the Istiqlal (a conservative and monarchist party) resigned from the governing coalition after a year and a half, in what some believe was a power move orchestrated by a subset of the king’s advisers to undermine the PJD’s support and notoriety (Hissouf 51). The PJD appeared to be weakening over time due to the royal government’s growing antagonism and its continued failure to deliver on promises.

The Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD), in power since 2011, obtained just 12 seats in the 2021 elections, compared to 125 in 2016. In Morocco’s 2021 parliamentary elections, the liberal National Rally of Independents (RNI) party gained the most seats. The party was led by billionaire agricultural minister Aziz Akhannouch, whose party vowed to generate 1 million jobs to help the economy recover from the coronavirus pandemic, as well as to provide health insurance to all Moroccans, raise teacher incomes, and offer a guaranteed pension for the elderly (Africanews). Many believe that the 2016 election incident, in which the RNI (which won 37 seats) established an alliance with the minor parties to enhance its political influence and refused to join the coalition without these parties, may have contributed to the RNI’s gradual ascent to power. According to Abouzzohour, there was a five-month deadlock that occurred in 2016 as a result of the PJD Prime minister Abdelilah Benkirane’s refusal to accept the USFP’s participation in the coalition. Benkirane had rejected the small party due because it only obtained 20 seats in the elections.

This resulted in a five-month deadlock that led the monarch to ask Benkirane to step down in March 2017 and to appoint current Prime Minister Saâdeddine El Othmani in his place within a week, thereby diminishing the PJD’s influence in government and creating divisions within the party (7).

Before the 2021 elections, new legislation was passed; the new law based seat assignments on the number of registered voters rather than those who actually vote. This implied that the party with the most votes in a district would only be able to win one electoral seat. Thus, the RNI would have to start coalition negotiations to create a government since new voting procedures would expectedly create barriers for established parties to obtain as many seats as previously.



Works Cited

Abouzzohour, Yasmina. “Progress and missed opportunities: Morocco enters its third decade under King Mohamed VI.” (2020).

Africanews. “Morocco: RNI Party Wins Most Seats In Legislative Election | Africanews”. Africanews, September 8 2021.

Daadaoui, Mohamed. “Of Monarchs and Islamists: The ‘Refo-lutionary’Promise of the PJD Islamists and Regime Control in Morocco.” Middle East Critique 26.4 (2017): 355-371.

Hissouf, Abdellatif. “The Moroccan monarchy and the Islam-oriented PJD: Pragmatic cohabitation and the need for Islamic political secularism.” All Azimuth: A Journal of Foreign Policy and Peace 5.1 (2016): 43-56.

Kristina Kausch, “The European Union and political reform in Morocco,” Mediterranean Politics 14.2 (2009): 168.

Maghraoui, Abdeslam. “Monarchy and political reform in Morocco.” Journal of Democracy 12.1 (2001): 73-86.

Marouan, Blaiha, and El Houcine Oughlane. “The Moroccan Monarchy and the Construction of Social Representations.” Contemporary Arab Affairs 13.3 (2020): 79-97.




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