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By : Samia Errazzouki
This weekend, the conservative nationalist Istiqlal Party announced it will be withdrawing from the government coalition, led by the Party of Justice and Development (PJD), and will take its place in parliament’s opposition. Its reason, according to the party’s press release, was to « avoid being complicit in the scheme against the Moroccan people. » Additionally, the party will maintain its cabinet positions until further notice and the party has written a formal letter to King Mohammed VI detailing its reasons for withdrawing from the coalition and to « guarantee » the execution of its withdrawal. This move will undoubtedly place further attention on Abdelilah Benkirane and his party’s perceived failure as the leader of the ruling coalition. However, Istiqlal’s decision warrants a more nuanced analysis.
The Istiqlal Party, founded in the early 1940s, built itself upon hardline nationalist views sprung out of the struggle for independence against French colonialism. Its nationalist politics fitted dominant sentiments at the time–these views included the institutionalization of an Arab identity, despite the majority Amazigh population, and an expansion of Morocco’s borders to include all of the Western Sahara and parts of Algeria, Mauritania, and Mali to establish « Greater Morocco. » Having been around for over seventy years, and through the reigns of three different kings, it has evolved into a party with a notorious reputation for corruption and nepotism dominated by the Fassi (-Fihri) family. Despite its reputation, especially among members of the February 20th Movement, it faired well in the November 2011 elections, tracking behind the PJD with about fifteen percent of the seats in parliament’s lower house. Even despite coming in behind the PJD, its party members have climbed to the highest echelons of the regime, including the palace, such as former foreign minister turned royal adviser, Taib Fassi-Fihri. It is not clear whether or not Taib Fassi-Fihri is still active in his party following his appointment in one of the most vague and obscure positions, well beyond the reaches of ballot boxes. In its move to the opposition, Istiqlal will find itself in the company of like-minded royalist parties, such as the National Rally of Independents (RNI) and the Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), two parties who emerged as political pawns from the palace, and whose members wander closely to the king.
In the biggest representation of where power truly lies in Morocco, Hamid Chabat, Istiqlal’s general secretary and former mayor of Fes, announced he is « waiting for the king’s response for further instructions. » Lakome also revealed that Mohammed VI, who is currently on vacation in France, communicated with Chabat within hours of Istiqlal’s announcement. Mohammed VI, once again finds himself in a convenient position to play « mediator » for opposing parties who cannot seem to move beyond politics to get things done. Understanding Istiqlal’s move in this context reveals the nature of Morocco’s political system, where elections serve more as a constructed facade–a cornerstone argument for the February 20th Movement’s decision to boycott elections during November 2011, despite the regime’s attempt to paint those elections as a « step forward » following the constitutional referendum.
Assuming that either Chabat or Benkirane have the power to initiate a political turning point is dismissive of the fact that they are active in sustaining the authoritarian status quo which capitalizes on the symbolic participation of these parties. Istiqlal’s decision to move to the opposition also demonstrates the futility of elections. Having previously held the same position as the PJD at the head of the ruling coalition, there is no doubt that the Istiqlal Party is acutely aware of the limits in that position and that a move to the opposition is an empty gesture. A liberal interpretation would perhaps suggest that Istiqlal’s move is intended to isolate Benkirane and his party, yet the notion of this isolation would arguably strenghten the PJD’s base as its supporters will point to the failure of Istiqlal to work with the PJD. Even so, the move does is not shocking, especially following the verbal confrontations Chabat inititiated against Benkirane soon after he was elected the head of Istiqlal.
Given the opaque nature of decision making in Morocco, it is difficult not to speculate that this move was quietly calculated from the palace halls as a means of reiterating the « neutrality » of the monarchy. Moreover, it would present a « political crisis » to distract the media with from the ongoing repression of protests in Laayoune where Sahrawis have been demanding their right to self-determination. The protests have escalated tremendously following the the renewal of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), which failed to include human rights monitoring as a part of the mandate. Morocco’s handling of the diplomatic squabble has been a source of ridicule in Moroccan press, drawing commentators to argue for a reconfiguration of Morocco’s policies towards the territory.
While the decision to withdraw from the coalition was not entirely predictable, it is neither entirely surprising. Beyond simply responding as a pawn of the monarchy, the Istiqlal Party strategizes in what is in their best interest. It is through this framework that Istiqlal’s decision to join the opposition should be viewed, as such a move would not have been made had the party not also anticipated gaining leverage in some way. It could be said that it is too early to determine what will follow, however, it is certain that this will not diminish the palace’s hold on power. From the immediate reactions following the announcement of the decision, such as the PJD’s decision to hold off on reacting until the king returns from his visit in France or Istiqlal’s announcement that it is waiting for further instructions from the king, it is quite evident that the palace will both shape and dictate the outcomes.