Mohammed Masbah
Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme
Despite reforms and a stronger parliament, the monarchy remains capable of imposing its authority over the country’s politics.
King Mohammed VI at the royal palace in Tangiers. Photo by Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images.King Mohammed VI at the royal palace in Tangiers. Photo: Getty Images.

For the past five months, Morocco has been at a political impasse. After parliamentary elections in October 2016, the biggest party, the Party of Justice and Development (PJD), and its leader, Abdelilah Benkirane, tried to form a governing coalition, but has been stymied by opposition from parties that receive support from the royal palace.

On 15 March, in an attempt to break the impasse and assert the palace’s authority, King Mohammed VI dismissed Benkirane from his position as presumptive prime minister and replaced him with Dr Saad Dine Othmani, another PJD leader. The royal decision is a calculated step, giving the PJD a second chance to form a government, but at the expense of losing a charismatic leader.

Power struggle

The political deadlock reveals a relatively new political equilibrium in the Moroccan political sphere. While the monarchy still wields de facto power and has far-reaching constitutional privileges, it is handcuffed by constitutional amendments from 2011 which limited its ability to impose a government. Before 2011, it was the king’s prerogative to designate the prime minister. The constitutional amendments, agreed in the wake of the Arab Spring as an attempt to head off potential unrest, bind the king to designate the prime minister from the party that won a plurality of seats in parliamentary elections.

This has ignited a struggle for power between the ‘traditional’ legitimacy of the palace and the ‘electoral’ legitimacy of the PJD. For a long time, the PJD has complained about the ‘attahakoum’ (hegemony) of the regime, which alludes to the practices of the Ministry of Interior and influential people in the palace aimed at retaining palace power indirectly. Their suspicions have now been further fueled by the latest deadlock.

Playing for stalemate

Following the October elections, the PJD succeeded in convincing two other parties, the Party of Progress and Socialism (PPS) and the Istiqlal Party, to join a coalition, and needed only one other party to join to achieve a majority and form a government. But Aziz Akhanouch, the new head of the main pro-palace party, the National Rally of Independents (RNI), imposed unworkable conditions on its joining the coalition, acting as a spoiler to obstruct the formation of a majority.

Akhanouch, a billionaire and minister of agriculture and fisheries, insisted on excluding the Istiqlal party  and including three other parties (Socialist Union of Popular Forces [USFP], Popular Movement and Constitutional Union) in the coalition as one bloc in exchange for the RNI’s participation. The PJD leadership perceived this as an attempt to dump the government with too many parties in the aim of making the prime minister dependent on the pro-palace parties and weakening the PJD’s position.

To lessen the strain, the PJD made some concessions in favor of the RNI. It excluded the Istiqlal Party and relinquished the presidency of the parliament to the USFP. But this still did not break the deadlock. After five months of negotiations, Benkirane decided to end coalition talks and threatened to resign.

Competing personalities

Othmani is a former secretary general of the PJD and is also the former foreign minister. He is well respected within his party and maintains good relations with other parties. But whether he will be able to end the political impasse is not yet clear.

For his part, Akhanouch resigned from the RNI in 2011 before his return to its leadership after the 2016 elections. His economic and political interests with the palace give him exceptional access to patronage and wealth. He put as a condition for his participation the suspension of a PJD project meant to direct cash funding for poor families and the restoration of a subsidies fund that his companies, according to media reports, allegedly benefited from for a long time.

The next move

From its side, the PJD is obliged to play by the rules set by the regime, which is why it offered a number of concessions to try to break the impasse but ultimately could not stand up to the palace’s tactics. The palace, meanwhile, will likely help Othmani form the new government. While this will be seen as a compromise on both sides, it will only strengthen the executive character of the monarchy and consequently weaken the status of the elected government.

Thus, the institutional limitations on both sides have created a situation of equilibrium that will force the coexistence of the PJD and the palace for the foreseeable future. But this latest conflict over cabinet formation shows that the balance of power remains on the side of the palace.

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