December 14, 2011 12:40 pm

Morocco’s new leaders draw up battle lines

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They are two poles of the same moderate Islamist political party, one strident and outspoken, the other low-key and diplomatic.

Abdelilah Benkirane, the charismatic 57-year-old leader of Morocco’s Justice and Development party, and Saadeddine Othmani, his quieter number two, have become the focus of their country’s unique experiment in political reform, initiated by King Mohammed VI in response to pro-democracy protests.

The pro-monarchist PJD won the highest number of seats in elections last month, propelling Mr Benkirane to the post of prime minister-designate. The Rabat native will now try to form a government that will have more power than any other in the country’s recent history.

Analysts say the party, named after and modelled loosely on Turkey’s ruling party, will likely make few dramatic waves in the nation of 32m people. With only 107 of 395 seats, it will have to form a coalition with other, secular parties, some with more experience of government. Popular sentiment is also likely to temper its Islamist tendencies.

“There’s not a lot of popular support for rocking the boat too much now, and there’s a fear of prolonged instability if political forces aren’t kept in some kind of equilibrium,” says Claire Spencer, head of Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House.

But there is also a rough edge to the party and its supporters, represented by Mr Benkirane and his more radical enthusiasts. Their ascent could result in a serious challenge to the established order.

While hailing the legitimacy of the monarchy, unlike the outlawed Islamist Justice and Charity party, they must play to their economically anxious lower and middle-class base.

Already, the outlines of a battle between the monarchy and the party are emerging. The king’s supporters assert that the new government should pursue the monarch’s programme, while the party itself says it will embark on its own ambitious political and economic reforms.

“The king will not decrease our power because through our new constitution, the parliament will make important decisions that the monarchy can’t influence,” says Habib Choubani, the party’s spokesman.

The lack of clarity in the king’s relationship to a parliament and cabinet newly empowered by a constitutional reform package could be the defining dynamic of the coming era.

“In the past, the monarch used to give instructions to the prime minister,” says Lachen Achy, a Rabat-based analyst for the Carnegie Middle East Centre. “The new constitution says the new prime minister will make policy. The challenge for the PJD is to show it’s playing the full role it has from the constitution. That means not waiting for instructions.”

The party’s elders, especially Mr Benkirane, also speak about a new “balance” in the country’s relationship with Europe, Morocco’s primary trading partner. Analysts predict it may mean more independent trade relations, though the king retains ultimate authority over foreign policy.

The party’s rise could also press the country to change its fundamental economic direction, especially amid the continuing crises in the US and European financial sectors.

Mr Choubani says the PJD will embark upon a review of the country’s tax laws to see whether the rich are paying their share. “We will revise the taxes and make it fair by making everyone pay them, because so many people with power try to escape paying taxes,” he says.

Analysts foresee a possible attempt to reconsider past liberal economic policies, especially if the PJD forms a coalition with socialists. “All along, Benkirane has been rather ambivalent toward the west, and especially France,” says Michael Willis, a researcher at the Oxford Middle East Centre. “The party has stated repeatedly that they think Morocco has been too dedicated to following a western economic model in the past.”

The parties that ran in last month’s elections generally agreed on Morocco’s main economic challenges, particularly tackling unemployment. The International Monetary Fund puts unemployment in Morocco at 9 per cent, but says urban and youth unemployment is higher. The IMF also identifies cutting subsidies and the public sector wage bill as crucial to generating sustainable growth.

The country’s old guard – elites close to the royal court – continues to insist against popular sentiment that the country was on the right course, pointing to numbers showing estimated 2010 gross domestic product growth rates of 4.2 per cent.

The PJD’s challenge in implementing its own policies may come down to political savvy. Mr Benkirane, described as impulsive, provocative and a darling of the party’s more radical lower ranks, has a strained relationship with the press and some rivals.

That could spell trouble on some pressing matters. “The government will need to make compromises with trade unions and this means that you need somebody who is much more calm and diplomatic,” says Mr Achy, adding that Mr Benkirane “doesn’t have these qualities”.

But he will be able to call on Mr Othmani, the soft-spoken 55-year-old psychiatrist. “He’s much more diplomatic, much more structured in his thinking and his way of behaving,” Mr Achy says.

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