Despite high popularity and a large election win after a relatively successful governmental mandate, the Justice and Development Party (PJD) is facing its most intriguing situation post-2011. Abdelilah Benkirane’s five-month perseverance effort to protect the public has been dashed not only by the royal decision to task Saad Eddine El-Othmani, also a member of the PJD, with government-forming responsibility but also by the government parties’ incongruent formula. If formed, the cabinet from the onset carries indications of potential implosion.
When street activism started in 2011, the party refused to join February 20 Movement both to express goodwill towards the regime and avoid undesired outcomes which may unfold. Activists warned the party that it was merely being utilised as a temporary shield. The utmost fruit the party’s initiatives would reap, for observers, would simply be allowing the regime to stoop to the Arab Spring tempest safely. The PJD was warned about the possibility that the deep state would rise to regain hegemonic power. However, the main answer the party put forward was prioritising public good, notwithstanding the repercussions on their own reputation or popularity.
With this background, the party has been besieged between regime tactics and monitors’ criticism. It has engaged in a challenge to prove commentators, activists and the regime wrong: that it is not a shield, but rather a serious player that practically believes in gradual change. This motivation has enabled successive wins at elections, to peak in October 2016 with 125 parliament seats.
The unprecedented figure seems not only astonishing but also unacceptable to the deep state. It means the party will increasingly shake the long-standing traditions of party monitoring and government-forming practices that customarily revolve around the palace, not parties. The parties have been taken sd sheer mediators between the real governors and the governed mass, with no clear voice or specific opinion to express. Recognising how narrow the margin for party politics is, parties repeatedly present approximately similar programmes before elections and then forget voters’ will. The PJD, on the other hand, has tried to challenge this tradition. This is a key reason behind deep state wrath since authorities are not used to compete with parties over who represents or defends public will.
A second reason is Benkirane’s popularity. Before 7 October, countless events indicated how international, regional and local political forces wanted to smother the PJD. Whether to close the Arab Spring bracket, axe the 2011-2016 reforms or simply get rid of Benkirane, they all joined to help the Authenticity and Modernity Party win. Feeling the risk, Benkirane brought out his party’s human and communicative arsenal. He toured the country to gather votes, believing in open competition between parties. In one night, for example, he addressed a large rally in the city of Larache while a larger one was waiting in Tetouan, 100 kilometres away. The ability to gather supporters in tens of thousands must have raised the deep state’s eyebrows.
A third factor is stepping in the royal terrain of deciding which political groups to integrate and which not. First, the PJD secretary-general attempted to involve the Salafists through electing Hmad El-Kabbaj in Marrakech. This was in vain. Then, he, in one of his strongest and clearest discourses, swore not to lead a government that includes the Socialist Union for Public Forces (USFP). For the deep state, including or excluding parties from the government is part of its domain. Unlike in 2011, it is not ready to give it up even to the winning party’s leader.
The resultant irritation from these factors explains the five-month “blockage” as well as why the head of the government was changed. Launching reforms and then erecting fences against political leaders is not new in the kingdom’s history. However, the factor neglected this time is the rising public political awareness and youth’s ability to mobilise seeking dignity and democratisation. Once El-Othmani revealed the parties included in the coalition, youngsters – and many members – of his own party were the first to denounce the decision.
For the PJD to maintain the role for which it received votes, reshaping its approach to politics is inevitable. Though some leaders say the party cannot be led by two heads, referring to having a secretary-general who is different from the head of the government, the political reality necessitates a different reading.
Since the deep state has marginalised the party’s secretary-general despite his pivotal role in winning the elections, and appointed the party’s second-in-command to lead a cabinet that will defy his decisions and hamper reforms from day one, it will, most probably, take more steps to overthrow the whole party in the 2021 elections.
Throughout the forthcoming mandate, the deep state will keep asking El Othmani for more concessions, to weaken the party, eat out its legitimacy and undervalue its reform discourse before 2021, if not earlier.
Thus, given the party’s reform tendencies, the main element to depend on is strengthening dynamism and improving performance in local councils. The party’s structure needs to distance itself from the coalition experience, which requires having a secretary general who is different from the head of the government. This may help avoid engaging in a race to the bottom, even if the current coalition fails.