The 2021 Moroccan elections and the political incorporation of MREs: an everlasting debate?

By: Chaimae Essousi and Ahmed Kadiri

The 2021 Moroccan elections were set in an extraordinary context due to the COVID-19 health crisis. Despite this, 50.35% of the Moroccan population voted in the three elections – municipal, regional and legislative – that took place simultaneously on the 8th of September 2021

The rather unexpected results saw the National Rally of Independents (RNI) win 102 seats, followed by the Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM), with 86 seats, and the Independence Party (PI), with 81 seats – all three making up the new government coalition. The incumbent Justice and Development Party (PJD), which had been in power for the last decade, only won 13 seats. 

At the same time, the 4 to 5 million Moroccan citizens living abroad, referred to as Marocains Résidents à l’Étranger or MREs, were yet again unable to vote despite their constitutional right to do so. This is due to political and institutional ambiguity over the enfranchisement of the diaspora. This blog post explores the reiteration of this long-standing issue in the light of these recent elections, which took place in an unprecedented context, both in terms of the ongoing pandemic and the political situation. 

‘Citizenship Light’ for the MREs 

Most countries worldwide have granted and implemented voting rights from afar to their citizens living abroad. However, MREs are still unable to vote directly from abroad in the Moroccan elections, although the debate on their enfranchisement goes back decades, and that at one point in history the MREs did have representatives in the Moroccan parliament (see Figure 1). This contrasts with the numerous royal speeches and initiatives in which the kings of Morocco highlighted the importance of the diaspora, particularly for the domestic economy; most recently illustrated by a speech of King Mohamed VI earlier this month.

Moreover, the Moroccan constitution of 2011, which emerged in the context of the Arab uprisings and was drafted by the King, explicitly allowed MREs to participate in parliamentary elections as full citizens. Article 17 states that “Moroccans residing abroad enjoy the rights of full citizenship, including the right to vote and to be elected. They can stand for election at the level of local, regional and national electoral lists and constituencies”. Nonetheless, the implementation of this article remains up until today a ‘political tug of war’, despite recurrent attempts by most of the country’s political parties to lobby for the full incorporation of MREs in the Moroccan political life. 

This cannot be understood without taking into account the ambivalent character of Morocco’s political system, split between the political parties and the monarchy. In fact, as argued in this article, the country displays a wide gap between the public discourse and policy pledges of the political actors, and how these promises are pursued in practice. This is mainly due to the weakness of the kind of democratic institutions that could exert pressure on the executive for concrete actions vis-à-vis the diaspora. This is especially relevant as the final say belongs to the executive powers of the Monarch, particularly regarding foreign affairs. 

Figure 1. Source: Chaudier (2011)

How the COVID-19 pandemic impacts the MREs  

As previously pointed out by the MIGRADEMO team, Morocco adopted some of the most severe confinement measures in the region in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the closure of all external borders. Moreover, during the first stages of the pandemic, Morocco’s assistance to Moroccan tourists stuck abroad, MREs, and/or visitors trapped in Morocco was considered quite as a ‘laissez faire’ approach, as explained in this article. In an attempt to justify that approach, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and MREs stated that the priority was to avoid a collapse of the fragile healthcare system

More recently though, the government has included the Moroccans abroad in its vaccination plan, indicating a shift away from such ‘laissez faire’ approach. This shift has also been reflected in the King’s order that transport operators and Moroccan hotels “set affordable prices” for Moroccan emigrants who wished to return to their country of origin for their summer vacations, as part of what is called Operation Marhaba – an annual effort left by the King’s Foundation for Solidarity to enable MREs to come home during the summer. It should, however, also be mentioned that the Moroccan government mandated the exclusion of several Spanish ports from the Operation Marhaba, which thereby prevented people from travelling to Morocco from Spain. 

The recent political debate about MREs’ enfranchisement

How did political parties represent MREs’ interests in the preparation of the 2021 elections? In July 2020, the three main opposition parties, the Independence Party (PI), the Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM) and the Party of Progress and Socialism (PPS), released a report proposing a set of reforms to the electoral law. Notably, the memo put particular emphasis on Moroccans abroad and urged for the implementation of Article 17. The parties suggested that while the creation of special circumscriptions reserved for MREs was not yet to be expected, at the very least a passive suffrage in Morocco should be permitted

Furthermore, in January 2021, a joint declaration by eight political parties, including the incumbent PJD, argued for dialogue and coordination regarding MREs’ political participation. This reflects a new consensus on the matter, which arguably stems from a shared political interest in MREs’ political capital. It marks a change from the 2016 elections, when Abdelilah Benkirane – PJD’s General Secretary and chief of the government at that time – paid no attention to the representation of MREs in legislative elections.  

In March 2021, a parliamentary amendment was presented by the center-right Independence Party (PI) to facilitate the MRE vote from abroad. However, the amendment was voted down by the Popular Movement party (PM), The Socialist Union of Popular Forces party (USFP), the PJD, and the PAM (224 votes against, 8 abstentions, and 18 in favor, all from the PI party). Thus, the MREs were once again prevented from participating in the national elections. The PI Deputy, Omar Hjira, reacted by denouncing the hypocrisy of these parties who constantly call for the representation of the Moroccan community in both Houses of Parliament but do the opposite when it comes to voting on that matter. The  defeat of the amendment was also met with wide discontent by the mobilized diaspora, notably in France

In a first instance, this appears as another example of the misalignment noted by Mahieu (2014) between discourses on MREs’ rights and the implementation of those rights. However, a radio debate surrounding the amendment revealed several misgivings regarding the MREs’ long distance voting rights. For example, Mohamed Tafraouti, representative of PJD in France, said that the debate on electoral quotas has overtaken all other amendments, to explain why the amendment was voted down. Furthermore, Salem Fkire, President of the association CAP SUD MRE, which campaigns for the rights of MREs, highlighted that the unwillingness of political parties to concede any seats to MREs, is linked to their perceptions that this would be “detrimental to the lieutenants of the party”, that is, challenge political hierarchies within the parties. In addition, Mohamed Moussaoui, member of the Council of the Moroccan Community Abroad (CCME), explained this rejection by the fact that parties were not that interested in MREs. He backed that by referring to a study conducted in 2018 on the 2011-2016 legislature that showed  that only 0.67% of the parliamentary questions asked MPs were about MREs. 

In another debate in the media, Latifa Chakri, a French Moroccan activist, argued that one of the possible reasons for the MREs not having the right to vote is because, according to her, they are not full Moroccan citizens and their loyalty towards Morocco can be questioned. On the other hand, Mounire Lyame – French Moroccan parliamentary attaché in France at that time – argued that the different Moroccan institutions dealing with the question of MREs, such as the Hassan II Foundation or the Council of the Moroccan Community Abroad (CCME), did not live up to their mission of effectively creating an organic law that will put Article 17 of the constitution into force. 

These arguments are not particular to Morocco, as parties in other countries have also argued against implementing voting rights using similar frames. Another hypothesis, therefore, could be that the support for MRE enfranchisement by the major parties, including the incumbent PJD, was tempered by their low expectations regarding attracting MRE electoral support; as mentioned above, there have been anecdotal testimonies of discontent both in Morocco and among MREs concerning the Moroccan government’s management of the pandemic.

The Road Ahead 

Overall, the challenges due to the COVID-19 Pandemic did not impact the participation rate, which was 50.35%, 7 percentage points higher than in the 2016 elections. These elections were mainly a way to evaluate Saad-Eddine El Othmani’s administration and its management of the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in a massive defeat of his party, the PJD, who went  from 125  to 13 seats in the new assembly. This can be explained, more generally, by the PJD largely failing to deliver on its election promises.  

Interestingly, the new chief of government, Aziz Akhnnouch, from the RNI party, is a migrant returnee who did his MBA in Canada, which might raise the expectation that his government might be more sensitive towards the question of the enfranchisement of the diaspora. Indeed, it will be interesting to see whether the experience abroad of the new chief of government will influence his policymaking and style of government. Hence, some important questions remain following these elections: Will this new administration bring changes in terms of the enfranchisement of the Moroccan diaspora? Will the gap between policy proposals and policy implementation on this long-standing issue be bridged this time? And to what extent can MREs hold their home country’s administration accountable for the problems that affect them?