The Islamist party that was leading the government coalition in Morocco suffered a crushing defeat in the recent elections, a turn of events that reverberates across North Africa given the leading role of political Islam with the spark of the Arab Spring.
The Justice and Development Party with an Islamic reference, which was the first Islamist party to take power in elections in the entire region and the Middle East, found that its share of parliamentary seats was reduced from 125 to only 12 seats.
Back in 2011, the feeling of a new beginning for many in Morocco was real. The development was in harmony with the times.
The protests that first erupted in Tunisia, later known as the Arab Spring, were in full swing. Protests that year resulted in the overthrow of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.
Islamist parties were also about to win elections in Egypt and Tunisia, and change the course of history, as many had hoped.
Moroccos King Mohammed VI saw where the winds were blowing and acted swiftly to pre-empt any similar disturbance that could threaten his throne.
The then Moroccan monarch dismissed the government, dissolved parliament to stem the rising wave of protests, and announced plans to draft a new constitution to set Morocco on a new path.
Those changes were later approved with 98.5 percent of the vote, and the king was hailed as a game-changer, helping to portray the king as a flexible autocrat willing to share power with the people.
But the reforms promised by the king were dismissed as cosmetic by the February 20 Movement for Change, the banner under which demonstrations were organized during the Arab Spring.
The movement has taken to the streets to demand a radical reform to transform Morocco into a constitutional monarchy where “the king owns but does not rule”, a symbol of the nation, a perception more in line with European monarchies in Britain or Scandinavia.
Indeed, in the new constitution, the king retained nearly all the powers he once held as he continued to control foreign, defense, and security policy.
He also retained his position as the nation’s spiritual leader, officially the “Commander of the Faithful,” a historical description not used anywhere else today, and based on the claim that he was a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.
However, the new constitution heralded a new beginning for some members of the political class, including the AKP.
The party seized the opportunity and rode the peak of the wave of widespread discontent with the old political parties.
The king and his entourage, who grudgingly tolerated the Islamists, did not prevent their rise to complete the democratic facade, while retaining the threads of real power.
The AKP increased its parliamentary share in the subsequent elections in 2016 to 125 seats to continue for another five years in power.
The poisoned cup
Although almost everyone expected the party to lose some votes in last week’s elections, no one expected such a crushing defeat, even the party leader and his deputy lost their seats, which prompted them to resign immediately.
It may be too early to explain the reasons for this resounding downfall, but observers agree that the AKP simply failed to deliver on its electoral promises.
They argue that the party labeled “justice” and “development” has failed to achieve either.
The party, for example, pledged to lift more Moroccans out of poverty and improve public education and health, but it failed to do any of that. On the contrary, the gap between the rich and the poor has widened.
Moreover, the party alienated some of its base when it passed a controversial law granting teachers two-year contracts, depriving them of job security, and some view this as the first step on the path to privatizing the education system.
On the question of the place of the French language in education, a particularly sensitive topic for the party that defends the Arab-Islamic identity in the former French colony, the party has failed to prevent a law making French the language of science education in schools.
Once in power, party critics say, he became more royal than the king, siding with “the Makhzen,” the term Moroccans use to refer to the king, his powerful courtiers, and the security services vis-a-vis those who fought major rights and labor disputes.
Some commentators believe that the party’s biggest mistake was to take charge of the government without having the real power that rests with the king. It was like gulping a poisoned cup.
The change in the electoral law, which was not proposed by the AKP but approved by the House of Representatives last March, also dealt a severe blow to the party’s chances of achieving another major electoral victory.
Reducing the minimum number of votes for which small parties are allowed to enter parliament, and counting votes on the basis of all eligible voters rather than just valid ballots, contributed to the party’s loss.
The party opposed these changes, saying they were unconstitutional, but failed to prevent them in Parliament.
On the face of it, these changes were designed to allow for greater pluralism but in fact led to the further fragmentation of the political landscape, a tactic that the Makhzen has long used, analysts say, to undermine political parties.
News of the AKP’s regional failure was greeted with glee. In Egypt and the Gulf, the party is seen as the Moroccan version of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been designated a “terrorist” group in some countries.
Commentators considered the fall of the Justice and Development Party as the final nail in the coffin of political Islam.
In Morocco, it is safe to say that the marginalization of the PJD indicates that Makhzen has now fully weathered the storm of the Arab Spring and its immediate aftermath.
But the underlying tensions arising from the pursuit of truly representative and accountable government, or from the desire to control the king’s powers, have not disappeared.
Aziz Akhannouch, the man nominated by the king to form the new government and who is a billionaire and leader of the National Rally of Independents, which has the most votes, said his government would “implement the king’s strategy”.
Commenting on that statement, veteran Moroccan journalist Hamid El Mahdaoui wrote that all former prime ministers said the same thing. He wondered about the purpose of the elections and whether “the whole process of voting and representative elections.”