Reviving the Parliament

The second aspect of political change - the revival of the parliamentary process - has been moving more gradually than the human rights and anti-corruption campaigns, but appears set to continue.

It began in 1991 when the five parliamentary opposition parties - old fashioned, left-wing and nationalist - presented the King with a petition demanding some moderate constitutional changes. In a modified form these were put to the people in a referendum in September 1992 and duly approved by virtually 100 per cent of the electorate. They provided that future governments should reflect the balance of parties in the Chamber of Representatives (the single chamber parliament) and that the prime minister, who would continue to be chosen by the King, would have to submit his government’s programme, and each annual budget, to votes of confidence. The King was left with the right to dismiss a government, but the broad intention of the reform was to make governments responsible in most matters to the parliament.

In June 1993 an election was held with a new electoral list and the voting age lowered from 21 to 20. The poll was by no means totally clean, but it was reckoned to be fairer than previous contests and its outcome reflected roughly the true strengths of the parties. The biggest blocks of seats, though not an overall majority, were won by two of the opposition parties, the Union Socialiste des Forces Populaires (USFP) and the nationalist Istiqlal. These results applied only to the two thirds of seats which were filled by direct voting. Three months later voting took place in the professional associations, trades unions, chambers of commerce and similar bodies which filled the remaining one third of seats. Here, possibly on the initiative of the Minister of the Interior rather than the King, there was more active manipulation, and the result was an increase in the small overall majority of the "government" parties. These "parties" are little more than collections of office-seekers, conservative, loyal to the King and happy to vote as they are told.

In spite of the manipulation, it was accepted in political circles that the USFP had won the right to form the next government - but the King would not offer it the post of Prime Minister, nor allow his prerogatives to be curbed by letting it be given the posts of Minister of the Interior, Foreign Minister and Minister of Justice. It was offered 29 other less important ministries, and it refused them. The King was obliged to form two "technocrat" governments, the first under a veteran prime minister, Karim Lamrani, and the second under the Foreign Minister, Abdlatif Filali.

It was clear to everybody, including the King, that this outcome was not in keeping with the spirit of the 1992 referendum result. There was great disappointment among the intelligentsia that the reform process seemed to have stopped. The Lamrani and Filali administrations lacked moral authority.

In September 1996, therefore, another referendum was held, asking the people to approve the removal from the Chamber of Representatives of the deputies from the professional associations and their installation in a separate upper house, to be called the Chamber of Advisers. The new system, which was approved by a massive majority, provides for the upper chamber to be composed of elected members - 60 per cent from local governments, which have recently been given greater independence, 20 per cent from the trades unions and 20 per cent from professional associations. The chamber will be able to delay or modify legislation, but not veto it. In future it is accepted that the prime minister and cabinet will come from whichever party or political bloc wins a general election - though the King will have to approve the cabinet. The King will also continue to chair the Council of Ministers, body which meets every two or three months to approve the government’s draft legislation, before it is put to the parliament. In the past it has been rare for the Council to turn down a draft that has gone through the cabinet.

As of July 1997 it was understood that a general election would be held in late September, and it was expected that the opposition parties, known collectively as the Koutla, would again emerge as the strongest single bloc.

As to what would happen then there was much speculation. It was widely believed that the King would accept the leader of the most powerful bloc as prime minister - or call on some other senior member of the bloc to form a ministry. It is often said in Morocco that the King would have been happy with a USFP prime minister in 1993, but that Driss Basri drew him away from the idea by organising the professional associations’ vote to hand him a bigger conservative majority in the Chamber of Representatives. What the King may still demand of a new prime minister is that he re-appoints Basri as Minister of the Interior, or possibly that a new Ministry of Security be created with Basri at its head. Another minister would take over Urban Affairs and Local Development, which at present fall within Basri’s orbit. The general feeling is that whatever happens the King will find a way of influencing the government, through the upper chamber, the Council of Ministers or other informal channels. In future, though, the King’s influence will be brought to bear less often and will be less arbitrary.

In principle, from the point of view of most Moroccans and the Kingdom’s friends in Europe, the reforms seem what the country needs. They are democratic, and they should gradually impart a freer tone to society and stimulate enterprise. In the long run they should also make government more effective. A great problem of the old system was that the King controlled more of the government than a single person could reasonably handle. When the King could no longer give an initiative his attention it languished. And important matters might wait years before they were brought before the King.

Part of the reason why the King is now transferring some of his power to the parliament is that at the age of 67 he wants to prepare the ground for his son, Sidi Mohammad. He does not imagine that his son will be able to rule in the way he has done, and even if he personally finds it difficult to adapt to the process, he believes that Morocco’s government should become more institutionalised and more European. He may believe that after his death the monarchy should evolve along Spanish lines.

The problem for Morocco, in the short term, is that apart from the King the country’s political leaders are not a very inspiring group. They are old - some have been in active politics since the 1950s - and in many cases their attitudes hark back to the nationalism and socialism of that era. They pay lip-service to economic liberalisation, privatisation, free trade and the opening to Europe, but they do not really understand these issues. In their hearts many prefer the ideas of state controlled economies and import substitution. All are concerned, in a general way, with social issues. Some, particularly members of Istiqlal, which is the strongest opposition party, are drawn to the old idea of single party government. Certainly none of the parties have properly thought out political programmes, let alone manifestos putting them forth. It is feared that if in the autumn the opposition comes to power there will be a slowing down of the privatisation programme. The instinct of the new government might be to stop it - but it will be told by the King to continue, its ministers will be taught how effective the programme has been, and it will find itself needing privatisation revenues.

Whatever government takes office after the election it will no doubt be cautious in how it exercises its power. It will be aware that the public has more respect for the King than for politicians, and it will certainly not want to challenge the monarch. Rather, it will want to reach a consensus with the King, and with powerful figures in his staff. It will feel the great powers of patronage wielded by the King. It is he who appoints provincial governors, ambassadors, senior army officers and the chairmen of state corporations.

It is quite possible that in the autumn of 1997 Morocco will for the first time have a government that is drawn from the opposition parties, and, potentially, this government will have some real power. But the leaders’ lack of experience of government, the contradiction between their old fashioned instincts and the country’s current half-modernised status, and the influence of a very experienced monarch will probably ensure that for a few years very little changes.

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | April 1999

Previous Page TOC