Morocco’s moderate Islamist Party of Justice and Development swept to power in historic elections last year in the wake of Arab Spring protests that brought hopes of change.
But a year on, analysts say disappointment is growing at the slow pace of reform, compounded by doubts about how much power the palace has devolved and looming economic woes, with unemployed youths marching daily in the capital.
The PJD’s triumph in the November 25 2011 poll followed constitutional changes introduced by King Mohammed VI to curb his near-absolute powers, and campaign pledges to tackle widespread poverty, endemic corruption and a lop-sided economy.
Those steps succeeded in hollowing out support for the February 20 protest movement, prompting party officials to hail a “third way” that delivered Morocco from political chaos and proved it was an “exception” in the region.
But scores of demonstrators have been jailed this year, amid international concerns about their confessions being obtained through torture, and police often employ violent tactics to scatter the protests by jobless graduates.
Diplomats say the democratic provisions of the new constitution have led to meaningful institutional changes.
“Parliament is stronger and livelier, and has amended controversial legislation, while the National Human Rights Council is starting to deliver,” said one Western diplomat in Rabat.
“But there are large swathes of government business that are still influenced by the palace, and that continues to cause a lot of frustration among those who would like reform to move faster.”
Abdelilah Benkirane, the Islamist leader of the coalition government formed in January, insisted last month that democracy in Morocco was advancing slowly but surely. The king, he said, “is the head of state and… therefore my boss.”
All the signs suggest the king remains popular among Moroccans.
But the frustrations of the reformist camp, including over the pervasive interests in the economy of the monarch and his inner circle, the makhzen, are palpable.
So too is the determination of the authorities to suppress any criticism of what has long been a taboo subject.
Security forces aggressively dispersed a protest outside parliament last Sunday against the king’s proposed spending budget for 2013, of nearly 2.6 billion dirhams (234 million euros/$301 million), deemed extravagant by the demonstrators amid worsening economic hardship.
Unemployment remains stubbornly high, rising in the third quarter from 9.1 to 9.4 percent year-on-year, official figures showed, although the World Bank says the proportion of youths out of work is far worse at around 30 percent.
Prominent PJD sympathisers have started to raise their voices in criticism of the party, with politically active businessman Karim Tazi saying the electoral slogan of the PJD “All against corruption and absolutism” rings hollow today.
But despite these perceived failings, the Islamists appear to have retained much of their grass-roots support, winning legislative by-elections in Tangiers and Marrakesh in early October.
Political scientist Mohammed Madani believes the party’s lasting popularity is due to its clear desire to help ordinary Moroccans, many of whom accept that it is very limited in what it can do, and to the lack of viable alternatives.
“I think people continue to support the PJD because they know the government doesn’t have a free hand,” he said.
PJD officials claim the steps taken to battle corruption as a key achievement, notably the lists it has published of those benefiting from privilege, through the awarding of public contracts, and the mechanisms set up to scrutinise accounts and prosecute offenders.
Communications Minister Mustapha Khalfi also proudly refers to the numerous spending projects targeting the marginalised sectors of society and mentions the plans to reform to Morocco’s compensation fund.
The richest 20 percent, he points out, consume 43 percent of Morocco’s costly state subsidies.
“It’s only been 10 months. In reality, we are working on and launching projects that have an impact on the daily lives of Moroccans. But at the same time there are challenges,” Khalfi told AFP.
Others are less optimistic, saying corruption, economic hardship and social exclusion remain pressing problems in the kingdom.
“At the moment we don’t have any real, meaningful social and economic reforms, which means the problems are still there, and they are serious,” said Madani.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]