The moderate Islamist party which has dominated Morocco’s political scene for a decade lost badly in elections on Wednesday to a party led by one of the country’s wealthiest oligarchs.
Morocco’s Justice Development Party (PJD) saw its share in the 395-seat parliament drop 125 to 12 seats, while the rival National Rally of Independents (RNI), led by billionaire Aziz Akhannouch, more than doubled its share of seats to 95.
Another nationalist party, Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), came in second, with the PJD dropping to eighth place among the parties and its role in any future coalition government in doubt.
Morocco’s parliament and Cabinet play a subservient role to the monarchy of King Mohammad VI. He and his deputies, a set of institutions described by Moroccans as the makhzen, control the main levers of state power and the security forces.
The PJD was hobbled by voter dissatisfaction and economic troubles amid the coronavirus pandemic, new election rules that favoured smaller parties, and the absence of its charismatic former standard-bearer, Abdelilah Benkirane. He served as prime minister from 2011 to 2017 but was removed from his post by the king after failing to form a government.
The newspaper Hespress described the results for the PJD as “a catastrophic scenario that even the worst pessimists didn’t imagine.”
The interior ministry estimated turnout at about 50 per cent, “These results reflect the importance that the Moroccans place on these polls and the elected bodies resulting from them,” Interior Minister Abdelouafi Latif said.
There is little prospect the vote will change much in Morocco, a north African nation of 37 million with strong commercial and security ties to western Europe, especially Spain and France.
All of the country’s main political parties remain vocally obsequious to a Moroccan monarchical dynasty that stretches back to the 17th century and is intertwined with the country’s Muslim religious beliefs.
Under Morocco’s rules, the country’s king picks a prime minister from the leading party to form a government and can veto decisions by the parliament or the Cabinet.
But Wednesday’s vote suggests a shift of public opinion in Morocco and broader Arab world that only several years ago was seemingly entranced by the strain of populist Islam represented by the PJD since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.
The vote also carries geopolitical implications. The PJD is considered close to Turkey and Qatar and its defeat will be counted as a win by the United Arab Emirates, which has maneuvered against such Islamist parties across north Africa and the Middle East.
In Tunisia, a populist president with the apparent blessing of Gulf autocracies in July dissolved a parliament headed by the moderate Islamist Nahda party. Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar continues to receive the backing of the UAE despite his military failures.
The UAE backed a 2013 military coup against Egypt’s first freely elected government, which was headed by an Islamist former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood organisation.
Popular UAE-based pan-Arab news channels regularly deride Islamists in broadcasts. Gulf media celebrated the win by Mr Akhannouch, a businessman and current agriculture minister estimated by Forbes to be worth $1.7 billion.