Claire Spencer
Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme & Second Century Initiative
Low rates of youth voting in the recent general election reflect the absence of young people’s social and economic concerns in the country’s politics.
A Moroccan youth walks past a wall depicting the symbols of the political parties running for the parliamentary elections in Morocco on 7 October 2016. Photo by Getty Images.A Moroccan youth walks past a wall depicting the symbols of the political parties running for the parliamentary elections in Morocco on 7 October 2016. Photo by Getty Images.

Unusually for the Arab world, Moroccan elections have the merit of not being entirely predictable. This is partly because conducting public opinion polls ahead of voting is prohibited, but also because the 'dirty tricks' department of the Ministry of Interior has reined in its horns in recent years. King Mohammed VI of Morocco is understood to want a genuine political arena to develop, in order to balance, if not counterbalance the ultimate political authority the palace still enjoys. The 2011 general election victory of the Islamist-led government of the Party for Justice and Development (PJD) was seen as an experiment in affording greater executive leeway to a popularly elected party.

The results of the general elections of October 7th appear to confirm that this experiment is destined to continue. In a parliament of 395 seats, the PJD’s second term mandate is assured through its winning 125 seats over the 102 of its nearest rival, the Party for Authenticity and Modernity (PAM). Despite a number of minor incidents, the conduct of the elections themselves also belied the accusations of the PJD that the party had been set up to fail by ‘deep state’ forces that even Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane referred to darkly as ‘tahakoum’ (a creeping form of authoritarianism). Few doubted this to be a euphemism for the re-emergence of the Interior Ministry’s ‘dirty tricks’ specialists acting on behalf of interests close to the palace.

The head of one of the PJD’s coalition partners went further to accuse the PAM of still being under the influence of its most prominent founder, Fouad Ali El Himma, who now serves as a senior adviser to the king. In a campaign that would do the US presidential elections proud, the subsequent trading of insults and allegations saw the head of PAM, Ilyas El Omari, accuse the PJD of being linked to hard-core Islamist trends and of funding associations that radicalize young Moroccans, above all in northern regions between Tangier and El Hoceïma where recruitment to ISIS has been high.

In the event, the majority of the 43% of eligible voters who participated last week appear not to have believed this. But what these polls have not yet addressed is how to make official politics relevant to Morocco’s majority of young voters who did not participate, and who see little merit in the elite club of political interest groups and lobbies constituting most of the 30 political parties that contested the ballot. In the event, only two counted: the PJD, which does have a popular base, and the PAM, which despite its elite beginnings, forged an unprecedented rural following in last year’s local elections to balance the PJD’s dominance of city councils and urban centres  Reflecting the importance of local politics in budgetary allocations and local patronage, the participation rate in the October 2015 ballot rose to 53% from 45% in 2011. However, only 20% of voters aged under 35 voted in 2011 and a low youth participation rate is likely to be registered this year.

Much of the blame rests on PJD leaders who promised much in 2011 and have delivered somewhat less for disproportionately unemployed youth, at both ends of the spectrum from university graduates to unskilled labour. Benkirane’s successful lifting of unsustainable subsidies on petroleum products has stalled over other costly subsidies on sugar and butane gas, and his government’s pension reforms have been unpopular with the trade unions. Yet his bigger goals of stimulating economic growth to an annual rate of 7% from its current 1.5%, creating jobs and bringing Morocco’s endemic corruption under control have all faltered. According to the former head of Transparency International in Morocco, the level of corruption has in fact increased since 2011.

The PJD also faces dents to its image as a moderate Islamist party acting as a moral counterweight to a self-interested establishment of elites. With embarrassing speed over recent months, a series of sexual misconduct and adultery scandals in the PJD’s parliamentary wing and wider Movement for Unity and Reform has combined with the arrest of a PJD member in possession of three tonnes of cannabis to make a mockery of the party’s plans to uphold the illegality of extra-marital relations and cannabis production.

Little of this addresses the question of what kind of state, society and economy the majority of Morocco’s youthful population wants to see emerge. Young entrepreneurs lament the lack of legislation to authorize crowd-funding, seeing the elections as an unwelcome distraction from getting new economic ventures underway. Few consider that the established political sector has any real understanding of what is needed to address youth unemployment; even fewer are tempted to found their own political platforms while the barriers of political censorship, patronage and corruption remain so insurmountable.

The follow-up to these elections matters to the outside world not least because of the exemplary role Morocco’s intelligence and security forces play in intercepting international terrorist networks. Lone actors, such as the perpetrator of a knife attack on Dutch tourists in the capital Rabat last week are hard to pre-empt, but over the past fortnight, Moroccan forces have arrested a 10-strong all-female terrorist cell reported to have been planning suicide attacks on behalf of ISIS and will also have played a role in the coordinated arrests across Europe of four Spaniards and a Moroccan belonging to an online Spanish-language ISIS recruitment network.

If a similar balance of resources were dedicated to creating the space for new political and economic endeavours to emerge in Morocco’s most vulnerable hinterlands, then the need for preventive measures might well be replaced by new poles of attraction to counter the enticements of ISIS and its ilk. That these enticements are as much socio-economic as they are ideological is well-understood by the under-35s whose views and concerns will have barely featured in last week’s elections. It is time they were listened to and brought into the mainstream.

To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback