Analysis: Moroccan Islamists face tough ride at government helm

Reuters News
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Posted: Nov 29, 2011 5:29 PM
Analysis: Moroccan Islamists face tough ride at government helm

By Souhail Karam

RABAT (Reuters) - The election victory of Morocco's Islamist PJD party will give it a chance to tackle the country's social and economic problems - but it will not be able to force through change without the support of the still-omnipotent monarchy.

King Mohammed on Tuesday appointed Abdelilah Benkirane, the head of Justice and Development Party (PJD), as the new prime minister after the movement won 27 percent of seats in parliament, the largest share.

PJD's strong showing, after years in opposition, came on the back of a host of promises from the party - to increase democracy, cut corruption and tackle inequalities by raising the minimum wage and other measures.

Analysts say the monarchy hopes the fresh faces at the top of government, and at least the appearance of change, will stave off the pressure for a more revolutionary transformation, inspired by uprisings across the Arab world.

But that does not mean the moderate Islamist party will get an easy ride when it comes to putting its promises into practice, in terms of actual legislation.

"PJD has drawn much of its appeal for having not been tried before. There is however the challenge of whether their new government will enjoy its prerogatives in full and that it will not await instructions (from the palace)," said Lahcen Achy, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center.

The party has said it wants to form a coalition with the Koutla, a three-party secularist bloc that formed the backbone of the incumbent government.

PJD appeals to Morocco's large body of conservative voters and its lawmakers are known for being the most active in a parliament traditionally plagued by high rates of absenteeism.

Faithful to its guiding principle of producing change from within the country's institutions, the party snubbed protesters demanding less direct powers for the king and an end to corruption.

The party is loyal to the monarchy and backs its "divine right to rule," a status that allows the king to enjoy sweeping powers in the military, security and religious affairs.

NOT IDEAL

Constitutional changes approved in a July referendum should see the monarch giving up some powers to elected officials while keeping a decisive say in strategic decisions.

Mustapha al-Khalfi, a prominent PJD figure, said the reforms would make a difference but the balance of powers between the monarchy and the government was still not ideal.

"It (the reforms) provides for far better working conditions for the government than in the past. The government will now be held to account on specific responsibilities," he said.

The devil would lie in the details of laws drafted by parliament to enact the new constitution, he said.

"The key challenge is to make sure democratic management of public affairs prevails over the authoritarian style ... We expect maneuvers that will seek to derail this process," said Khalfi, referring to the possible actions of opposition parties backed by the palace.

PJD would not be able to do much to challenge the monarchy directly, said Lise Storm, a senior Middle East lecturer at Britain's Exeter University.

"PJD will not be able to rock the monarchy's boat at all. They never did in the past. There are also the parties with them in the coalition that will not want any boat rocking. PJD will try to get as much as they can without creating controversy.

"The PJD leaders are much more experienced and professional as politicians (than other parties). But things will not change a great deal. It will be a partnership. They will have to work with the monarchy and their coalition partners," Storm said.

Morocco may have sidestepped the Arab unrest for now. But analysts say the seeds of unrest are there.

Youth unemployment is at 31 percent, nearly a quarter of the 33 million population live in severe poverty and access to basic amenities is uneven.

All that could boil over if the PJD does not manage to find a way to get its promised changes past parliament and the monarchy.

"The challenges are so big that PJD may be more vulnerable than ever before now that it is leading the government," said Carnegie's Achy.

"People are eager to see results. They will probably give the new government three to four months."

(Reporting By Souhail Karam)