CASABLANCA – The strangest thing about Morocco’s multi-party elections this past Friday is America’s coolness toward them.
While much of the Arab world is mired in bloody repression (Syria, Yemen), stalled transition (Egypt, Libya), and reform efforts lacking in credibility (Bahrain, Kuwait), a record number of Moroccan voters peacefully went to the polls and voted for a new government with expanded powers.
They did so in the wake of a new constitution, proposed by the king and ratified by the population over the summer, which commits sweeping domestic authority to an elected prime minister while maintaining the king's control of the army and status as the country's highest religious arbiter.
The new government will be the first to test the genuineness of the monarchy's commitment to this new charter.
Unfortunately, much of the American media has presented a misleadingly bleak picture of voter apathy, dismissed Morocco's constitutional reforms, and exaggerated the radicalism of the main Islamist party, which won the largest share of the vote. It is important to correct the record; Morocco's democratization experiment contains potential lessons for other countries in the region and should be considered in this light by the media as well as the Obama administration.
The leaders of the February 20 Movement, Morocco’s version of “Arab Spring” demonstrations, had asked voters to abstain from the elections, saying that the constitutional changes had not gone far enough to warrant voter support. The movement predicted that fewer than one in five registered voters would actually vote. Other radical groups, such as Annahj Adimocrati, a Maoist group; and Al Adl wal Ihsan, a radical Islamic party, also predicted a low voter turnout.
Incredibly, the American press took these statements at face value. Most journalists ignored the views of the major political parties, which uniformly saw this election as a potential turning point, and did not report the uptick in voter registration in the months before the elections. As it turned out, almost half (45%) of all registered voters voted, marking a meaningful increase from the prior parliamentary elections in 2007, in which 37% of voters voted.
Nor is there any reason to doubt that the elections were free and fair. There were more than 4,000 credentialed election observers, mainly drawn from the United States and Western Europe.
The National Democratic Institute, a U.S. taxpayer-supported pro-democracy organization run by the Democratic Party, dispatched more than 40 monitors. Few irregularities were reported amid the more than 13.6 million votes cast.
Equally telling, the election did not go the way the palace staff or the political establishment predicted. The Istiqlal party came in second , behind the Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD) party, which campaigned against corruption and promised to shrink unemployment.
On a personal note, I had also doubted that the PJD would win the lion's share -- and though I'm not an Islamist, I'm celebrating the upset victory nonetheless as a victory for stability and transparency.
Nor do I subscribe to scaremongering about the PJD. In its platform this electoral season, the PJD pledged its support for the struggle against terrorism, endorsed Morocco's free trade agreements with Europe and the United States, backed the king's role as a facilitator in peace efforts between Israelis and Palestinians, and joined the monarchy in opposing Iran's nuclear and imperialist ambitions.
The PJD has not won enough votes to govern alone; it will have to form a coalition government with secular socialist parties and perhaps the remnants of the establishment center-left Istiqlal party.
More importantly, PJD leaders won the votes of the non-Islamist majority by running on a secular platform of job creation, economic growth and fighting corruption. With more than half of Moroccans under the age of 30 and almost one-third of young adults unemployed, this is a popular agenda. And the imposition of harsh Islamist cultural norms would be highly unpopular with Moroccans -- to say nothing of Western tourists, on whom the Moroccan economy largely depends.
And the PJD knows this. The author of the PJD’s platform is Mostapha Khelfi, a 37-year who once interned in the office of Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.). Khelfi, now the intellectual leader of the PJD, said that his party’s highest priorities are tax cuts (reducing the top corporate rate to 25% from 30%) and small minimum wage hikes to boost the spending power of consumers and the job-creation abilities of business. His model is Turkey’s Islamist ruling party, the AKP, which has generated almost 10% annual growth rates per year while reducing unemployment. The AKP’s popularity, he said, is due to its economic stewardship and not its Islamist identity.
In any case, the broader context of Morocco's Islamic culture has its own safeguards against extremism. The king, in his capacity as the country's highest religious authority, has exerted considerable energy and resources over the past ten years to the support of moderate forms of Islam.
He has introduced female religious "guides" to oversee the leadership of mosques. He has encouraged the invigoration and influence of Sufism, the mystical and pacifist form of Islam, which has a long and venerable tradition in Morocco. He has established a Moroccan Islamic satellite channel to compete with extremist religious media which have proliferated region-wide via satellite television and the Internet.
These initiatives are enormously popular in Morocco, and what's more, they dovetail nicely with the steady growth of a middle class and institutions of civil society -- cultural factors that predispose growing numbers of the population to seek out and embrace a moderate Islamic identity.
These achievements are a check against extremist ideologies, and a sort of guarantee that those who project a strident Islamist ideology will lose support among the population.
Morocco's constitutional experiment is an ember of hope in the Arab world today and should be regarded as such in Washington. The country's constitutional reforms are directly applicable to Jordan, Bahrain, and other enduring dynasties in the region, and also contain lessons for Egypt, Libya, and other countries seeking to balance democratization with stability and sustainability.
Ahmed Charai is publisher of the weekly Moroccan newspaper L’Observateur as well as the French edition of Foreign Policy magazine. As an expert on Morocco and North Africa, he sits on the board of Trustees of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.