Morocco's Cabinet Crisis

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With the withdrawal of Istiqlal from the Moroccan Cabinet, the ruling PJD party must find alternative allies to maintain a majority coalition.

Nearly two months after Istiqlal announced its intention to withdraw from the cabinet, the crisis has become clearer: Istiqlal withdrew, the Justice and Development Party (PJD) waits … and the National Rally of Independents (RNI) is available.

The king has finally received Istiqlal head Hamid Chabat, who finally gave the king the long-awaited letter. But it seems that the letter changed titles on the way. According to his own words, Chabat has not only told the king of the need to reshuffle the cabinet but also the reasons why Istiqlal is leaving the majority.

On Saturday June 29, Istiqlal’s central committee officially confirmed the announcement made two months ago by the national council (the party’s parliament). Istiqlal’s executive body even recommended accelerating its withdrawal from the government. But Chabat said, “We are giving the head of government time to find other allies. … [Istiqlal’s] decision to withdraw from the government is historic. This is the first time in Morocco’s history that a political party debates and decides to leave the government. Normally, everybody races to grab ministerial posts.”

Waiting for Benkirane

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It’s almost certain that the majority is shattered and that PJD Secretary General Abdelilah Benkirane must find new allies in parliament unless King Mohammed VI puts all his weight to force Istiqlal to stay in the cabinet, an unlikely scenario given the signals sent by the king.

Another thing is certain: Chabat was not bluffing. His strategy left many stunned after they used to wonder what he was up to. But his party is an ambitious one that never liked playing second fiddle. Let’s remember the difficult cohabitation of Abderrahmane Youssoufi and Abbas el-Fassi.

Chabat is an ambitious man who believes that the road to the premiership is to be the government’s top opponent. But was Istiqlal’s decision clearly thought out or was it the lesser evil given the prime minister’s intransigence? Chabat’s supporters say that it is the latter, as they keep reminding everyone that throughout the two-month-long government crisis, Benkirane has shown no reaction, which really irritated his critics in Istiqlal.

The fact is that Benkirane doesn’t have many means available to defuse the crisis. Some party members said that early parliamentary elections are possible. But that is unlikely to happen. Too few have an interests in that. Even the opposition doesn’t believe that early elections are the solution. “What good are elections if they only confirm the PJD’s leadership?” asked a member of the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USPF).

Many signals suggest that the PJD is still very popular and may win the elections again. For the king and other parties, the political costs of such an operation are too uncertain for it to be implemented.

So in the short term, Benkirane has only one card to play: the RNI. Politically, the RNI is the only party that can fill the void left by Istiqlal’s departure. Mathematically, the Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM) and the USFP can each fill that void too, but their internal situation and their tense relations with the Islamist PJD make them unlikely to participate in Benkirane’s next cabinet.

The RNI, in contrast, may switch to the majority. “It is in the nature of our party to act responsibly in times of crisis. I cannot imagine for one second that we would refuse joining the government if they ask us,” said one RNI member.

The always-ready independents

Founded in 1978 by King Hassan II, the RNI gathered independents who were elected in the legislative elections. The reins of the RNI are entrusted to a man whom the king trusts: former Prime Minister Ahmed Osman, who is the king’s brother-in-law and old comrade from the Royal College. From the start, the RNI has been a heterogeneous alliance that is supposed to embody the monarchy’s supporters.

Thanks to the Green March a little over two years ago, Hassan II has indeed won an internal and external victory. He competed with the Moroccan national movement on its own turf: nationalism. Now are not the days of the 1971 and 1972 coups. National consensus has been found and the RNI is supposed to gather the independent figures. Among the RNI’s founding members are successful businessmen, local notables, a few technocrats, and former leftists … a hodgepodge of political figures always ready to be part of any government.

Since the Hassan II era, the RNI has played the game better than other parties, such as the Constitutional Union. Over the past 15 years, the RNI has remained a major force in the political spectrum, asserting itself as one of the country’s five largest parties, along with the PJD, Istiqlal, the USFP, and the People’s Movement. The RNI has not lead the government since the era of former Prime Minister Ahmed Osman (whose term ended in 1979) but it has been part of all cabinets except the 1993 technocrat cabinet and the current one.

The Mezouar obstacle

But not everything is easy for the RNI. If the PJD has no choice in the short term but to appeal to the RNI, then RNI head Salaheddine Mezouar could end up in a rather uncomfortable situation. Mezouar himself led the 2011 election campaign with the defunct G8 (an alliance of eight anti-Islamist parties) under an anti-PJD theme. Upon the appointment of Benkirane as prime minister, Mezouar said that the RNI will not join the government.

So Mezouar could be a barrier to the RNI joining a cabinet led by the PJD. But the former finance minister is also aware of the balance of power within his party. “In any event, as our president said, whether the RNI will join the cabinet will be decided by the national council,” said an RNI member, who also predicted, “I can assure you that 80% of the 800 national council members will vote for participation in the cabinet.”

For now, the big boys of the RNI are preparing their arguments for future debates and ministerial posts. “We are in a strong position. We have absolutely no intention of playing the role of the replacements or worse, the standby ... It is not only about negotiating the number and nature of the ministries but also about changing government policy,” one RNI member said.

There is palpable stirring among current ministers too. Some Istiqlal members of the Fassi clan would like to make arrangements to stay in the cabinet, contrary to Istiqlal’s decision. Finance Minister Nizar Baraka and Education Minister Mohamed el-Ouafa have shunned their party’s recent meetings. The Moroccan governmental “crisis” may still hold many surprises.

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