The legislative elections hold on last September 27th in Morocco, were the most open in the history of the country. This was also true of the Algerian elections eleven years previously – on December 26th 1991. Both elections provided, for the first time, a fairly clear picture of the electorate’s frame of mind: Algerians at the start of the last decade and Moroccans at the present time, are both mainly inclined towards Islam.
Despite the differences in the political systems of these two Maghrebi countries and despite the interval of eleven years between the two democratic initiatives, the results of the two elections revealed startling similarities. However there was little similarity in the electoral systems and especially in the reaction of the authorities when the votes were counted.
The support of the Algerian regime – led by President Chadli Benyedid – for democratic change was greater and perhaps somewhat more risky than that of the Moroccan royal palace in recent months. The Algerian electoral procedure, with a single winner decided over two rounds and the reduction in constituencies favoured the Islamic Salvation Front (known as FIS).
In Morocco, on the other hand, proportional representation within the constituency fostered the fragmentation of Parliament. The size of the constituencies varied – substantially in some cases. In the largest (Ain Sebaa Hay Mohammadi) one deputy was elected for each 64,000 voters on the rolls while in the smallest constituencies (Assa-Zag) the ratio was one per 3,147. The largest constituencies were located in urban areas where the moderate Islamists of the Justice and Development Party (PJD) were expected to make strong gains. This party did not bother to contest the smaller constituencies.
For reasons which are not altogether clear and which can perhaps be attributed to pressure from above, the PJD did not contest 35 of the 91 constituencies in Morocco. On the other hand, in Algeria the FIS was the only party which presented candidates in all 430 constituencies. The National Liberation Front (the old single party) contested 429.
The high level of abstention was the common denominator in both electoral events. In Algeria, 41% of the 13.25 million registered voters abstained. In Morocco abstention was 48.39% of the 13.88 million voters who had collected their voter registration cards – although the real abstention was probably higher. Shortly after the closing of the polls on September 27th, the official agency, MAP, stated that by 4pm participation had been 30%. If the participation figures released by the Ministry of the Interior (51.61%) are true, a decisive percentage (21.61%) cast their votes between 4pm and 7pm. However, the officials in charge at the polling booths claimed that the main flow of voters had occurred in the late morning after prayers at the Mosque. Different members of the different political parties recognise in private that the real participation was probably between 35% and 40%.
In addition, one and a half million adults – according to the Al Bayane newspaper on August 30th – did not take the trouble to register. Of the 14.023 million Moroccans who did register, 139,137 failed to collect their voter registration cards and these should also be added to the number of abstentions. Participation was not calculated as a percentage of the general census but of the 13.88 million who had collected these cards. This unusual method of calculation gives a higher percentage. Abstention is primarily an urban phenomenon. The social control exercised by the authorities in rural areas encouraged the rural population to vote (in some villages the Moroccan caids and mokadem distributed voter cards door-to-door).
The second common denominator in the Algerian and Moroccan events was the very high percentage of null or blank ballots – much higher than in Europe. In Algeria this was 6.97%. In Morocco it was 15.55% in the local constituencies and 17.15% for the national women’s list. The high number of invalid ballots can be explained by two factors. A percentage of illiterate voters, especially in Morocco where these amount to 61% of the census, committed errors and their ballots were invalid. In other cases this was an expression of their rejection of the system. According to officials in charge of ballot counting, some even wrote insults on their ballots before putting them in the urns.
The results were the third common denominator of both Maghrebi countries. In the first round in Algeria, the FIS scored highest with 24.6% (3.2 million votes) and 188 of the 430 parliamentary seats. They also held an advantageous position in the other 199 constituencies for the second round. Another two small Islamic parties, Hamas and Nadha, did not appear likely to achieve any deputies.
In Morocco the official count in the national constituency reserved for women, which is the only one that affords a comparison, gave five seats to the Socialist Union of Popular Forces and placed the Istiqlal national party and the PJD Islamic party, second with four seats each. More than two weeks after the election, the Moroccan Ministry of the Interior and the official agency, MAP, had still not posted the number of votes obtained by each party on their web site – which only shows the list of seats.
Islamists and some independent weeklies have questioned these results. Jamea Al Moatassim, the PJD campaign co-ordinator, on the front page of the At Tajdid daily newspaper on October 1st, claimed that the list of women in his party had received the most votes – by a margin of 100,000 over its nearest rival. But on the same day, Driss Jettou, then Minister of the Interior, issued the final results of that list, putting the Islamists in second place along with Istiqlal.
This nation-wide feminine constituency, which elects 30 female deputies through proportional representation, is the only barometer which reflects the strength of the different parties. This is notably different to the local electoral areas where candidates from all parties were not always present. The Islamic parties were missing in a third of constituencies while nearly all the parties were represented in the elections reserved for women.
A week after the statements by Mr Al Moatassim, the PJD once again questioned the data issued by Mr Jettou. “We accepted the results of the national list because Allah willed it”, said Bassima Haqqaoui, the deputy who heads the female parliamentary group of the Islamists, in At Tajdid on October 8th. “However, we have observed certain anti-democratic practices which influenced the outcome . . . . and which resulted in less seats for us than the real number”.
The next day, another Islamic publication, Al Asr, explained the defeat of the PJD in Uarzazate and Chauen where it failed to gain any seats. According to the report, among other factors “the large number of polling stations [in that region] cannot all be fully monitored and this opens the door to fraud”. Where the Islamists had more monitors – in the larger towns and cities – their success was resounding. In the Casablanca constituency, for example, they obtained only 12,387 votes less than the other two main parties (socialists and Istiqlal) together. In Rabat-Sjirat-Temara they achieved only 3,897 votes less than their two rivals, in Tangier-Tetuán it was 8,044 less and in Meknès they won by 4,879.
The independent weekly, Demain in Rabat, supported the Islamic party’s complaints. “There was no massive fraud which completed twisted the elections results but there were small rectifications in about a dozen seats which would have been won by the Islamists. These were given to the Socialist Union or the Istiqlal”, wrote Alí Lmrabet, the editor. “Thanks to these dozen deputies, power has passed to the latter two parties and put them in front. This maintains our image as a moderate Muslim country . . . “
The success of the PJD could have been even greater if the Justice and Charity Party – an illegal but tolerated Islamic party led by Sheikh Yassin – had joined forces with its Islamic brothers instead of boycotting the elections. According to John Entelis, a North American professor, Justice and Charity is “the party most representative of the popular political, social and economic aspirations” of Morocco. Nadia Yassin, the sheikh’s daughter and unofficial spokesperson of the movement, revealed in the October 12th issue of the Tel Quel weekly that “. . . we have several hundreds of thousands of members and nearly double that in sympathisers”.
On the other side of the political spectrum a minority fringe of the Istiqlal also supports PJD ideology. For example, Milud Chaabi, a recently elected nationalist deputy for Essauira, declared, “My first demand in parliament will be the prohibition of wine in Islamic Morocco”. In the above coastal city the PJD did not presented a candidate but had asked its followers to support Mr Chaabi.
In view of all these events, Al Ayam, an independent weekly in Casablanca, reached the following conclusion in its first edition after the legislative elections: “We must not disguise the truth; the Islamic parties have become the main political force following the elections. The conservative Islamic movement is taking over the Moroccan heartland”.
Even prior to the elections, the authorities were making efforts to resist the Islamic advance which – apparently – they feared. Throughout the summer, the security services made numerous arrests among extremists and even reported the dismantling of an Al Qaeda cell. The Moroccan socialist and ex-communist press, supported by publications associated with business interests, made efforts to link the radical factions under arrest with the PJD. Members of this party denounced this attempt to discredit them and spoil their chances at the polls.
In Tetuán – one of the Islamic strongholds – the wali (governor), Mohamed Gharrabi, met with municipal leaders on September 26th (on the eve of the elections) according to a protest letter the party sent to the Minister of the Interior. It claims they examined ways of stopping the advance of the PJD in that city and deplored the partiality of the administration.
The main difference between the events in Algeria eleven years earlier and the recent ones in Morocco is the reaction of society and the authorities. After the first round of elections on December 26th 1991, a national committee to save the republic was set up in Algiers and on January 2nd some 300,000 people took to the streets of the capital to call for the elections to be interrupted. The majority of these were followers of the Ait Ahmed Socialist Front, a party which forms part of the International Socialist movement.
Three days before, the army decided to intervene according to the memoirs of Khaled Nezzar, the general who held the defence portfolio in 1991 (Argelia, fracaso de una regresión programada, Publisud, Paris 2001). President Chadli Benyedid resigned on January 11th and the same day, General Nezzar ordered the first tanks into the streets. On January 14th a High State Committee took charge of government and the 16th went by without the second round of elections. Three weeks later the FIS was outlawed and Algeria sunk quickly into a latent civil war.
Morocco has less tradition of violence and more of negotiation behind the scenes. Much is still unknown regarding the events which occurred during the 90-hour period between the close of the polling stations on September 27th at 7pm and the announcement of the final results in the afternoon of October 1st. The Moroccan Minister of the Interior had promised partial results from 11pm onwards on September 27th and the final results in a press conference on Saturday the 28th at 11am. This press conference was postponed on two occasions. The second time, no explanation was offered and when the minister eventually appeared on Sunday at 7pm, he made a long statement with partial results and refused to answer questions. Nearly another 48 hours would pass before the full distribution of seats would be announced – without details of the voting.
The Moroccan Minister of the Interior blamed the delay on technical difficulties in the counting process especially in respect of the seats awarded from the national women’s’ list but he failed to explain why he did not release partial results as they arrived. His media blackout even led him to close the pressroom which he had set up in his offices and to expel reporters in the early hours of Saturday, September 28th. This was not to be the only grotesque post-electoral event. On Monday the 30th, for example, the official agency MAP rectified the provisional distribution of seats previously announced by the ministry, basing this on its own recount carried out by its journalists and covering all the constituencies in the country.
This lack of clarity and confusion led to suspicions of electoral fraud. These claims did not only come from the Islamic parties but also from small groups on the left such as the Unified Socialist Left (la Gauche Socialiste Unifiée) and the National Socialist Congress (a splinter group of the socialist party). The same claim was made individually by various observers from Moroccan associations and NGOs which had joined forces to monitor the elections. Compared to previous elections, such as those in 1997 when the results had been decided in advance, manipulation this time was smaller. It consisted of a reduction in the votes cast for the Islamic parties and their reassignment to other large parties.
On Saturday, September 28th, the weekly publication, Demain, reported that “the theoretical leader of the PJD, Abdelkrim Khatib, had been urgently summoned to the royal palace in Marrakech. Different sources affirm that Mr Khatib was told the PJD had obtained 48 seats [without counting four from the women’s list] but it was impossible to acknowledge this” in order to preserve the image of moderation of the Moroccan Kingdom in the eyes of the world. With 48 deputies, it would have been the biggest party in parliament.
The moderate Islamists hardly protested this cutback. Their fellow Islamists at the Justice and Charity party found additional arguments in the manipulation of the recount to justify their boycotting of the elections. Nadia Yassin in the Tel Quel magazine lamented that the PJD “got more seats than is officially recognised but they are adopting a low profile”. The moral winner of the elections is a pragmatic party which is prepared to make concessions because its long term strategy for achieving power entails participation in the institutions of government. On the other hand, its restraint in daily affairs does not prevent it from advocating a theocratic state ruled by Sharia law and it often interprets this law more rigidly than the so-called radicals of the Justice and Charity Party.
“ . . . it calls for a totalitarian ideology which not only aspires to order public affairs but which desires to govern all the aspects of society and private life according to a single, supposedly Islamic, model”, said Mohamed el Ayadi, a Moroccan sociologist at the beginning of October. “We might say that the PJD espouses democracy not as a principle but for pragmatic reasons. It accepts some of its aspects, such as political pluralism and elections, because they are instruments of political change . . . . Democracy, however, is a system of political representation which is totally foreign to the Islamic concept. To simplify, let us say that the PJD is more in favour of the Iranian version of democracy rather than the British”. Despite the low level of vehemence when compared to the FIS in Algeria, both parties – the outlawed one in Algeria and the legal one in Morocco – substantially share the same ideology.
Behind the outward appearance of some modified results, the legislative elections in Morocco reveal that the Islamic movement, which was the major force in the streets during the demonstrations in March 2000 against the reform of the women’s statute and again in April 2002 following the Israeli attacks on Palestinians, is also present at the ballot box. Time will tell if the method used by the authorities in Rabat to weaken its influence on government institutions will save Morocco from a repetition of the dramatic events in Algeria. The apparent docility of the PJD and the complacent acceptance of isolation by the Justice and Charity Party, appear to indicate that this will be the case. Only a powerful social outcry, such as has occurred in Morocco in the past after a sharp jump in the price of some essential product, might encourage the Islamists, whether legal or tolerated, to abandon their pragmatism and capitalise on such protest. Its adherence to non-violence suggests that even then it will not resort to force. The merciless repression suffered by the FIS in Algeria brought many of its members to opt for terrorism in an attempt to overthrow power. Morocco will probably not follow the path of Algeria because nearly everybody – starting with the Islamic majority – has drawn lessons from the tragic experience of that country.