The former ruling Parti de la justice et du développement’s (PJD) is still struggling to hold itself together after its disastrous election defeat, which was quickly followed by the mass resignation of its general secretariat. 

The party held an exceptional conference at Bouznika on 30 October at which it voted for a new leader. Unsurprisingly, rather than chart new territory, the party took solace in the familiar by electing Abdelilah Benkirane — its former General Secretary and the country’s former prime minister — to the post. Benkirane won by 81% of the vote and easily beat the two other candidates.

Abdelilah Benkirane – re-elected as the PJD’s General Secretary

He also defeated those elements in the party, including its outgoing leadership, who wanted the newly elected leadership to be temporary and to last for one year only. Benkirane demanded a normal leadership for a normal amount of time and was successful in achieving it.

Controversial figure

Benkirane has long been a controversial character on the Moroccan scene. He is most notably remembered for his willingness to take a more robust line with the Palace, and for being far less docile and compliant than his successor Saadeddine Othmani. 

This characteristic should not be overplayed. While Benkirane was more willing than his predecessor to challenge the status quo, he also knew how to toe the line when necessary, following a policy of submission to monarchy which at times drew criticism from among the PJD’s more hardline elements. 

However, he was definitely a fierier and more charismatic figure than Othmani, and many in the party are clearly looking to him to revive the PJD’s fortunes. He has had a growing following among some factions of the party faithful over recent years and he has made his presence felt not least through his outspoken condemnation of the previous PJD leadership. This became particularly forceful whenever he felt the party had bowed too low to meet the Palace’s demands, such as: over the normalisation of ties with Israel; the legalisation of cannabis for pharmaceutical purposes; and the return of some parts of the educational curriculum being taught in French rather than Arabic. Consequently his being re-elected was hardly a surprise.

Magnanimous tone

Those expecting Benkirane to use the conference to indulge in a public attack against Othmani for having led the party to electoral disaster were, however, disappointed. Although some jostling and criticism of the outgoing leadership was expressed during the conference, Benkirane personally adopted a magnanimous tone. 

He made clear that the whole party should bear responsibility for its defeat at the polls and noted that it was not solely Othmani’s fault. He also made clear that the party should not expect miracles under his leadership, quipping, ‘I am not Messi. I am just one player, like you.’ He also talked of ‘a new phase’ for the party, stressing that it should focus on democratic reforms and human rights which are both issues that the party’s critics accused it of ignoring while in power. 

More importantly for many, Benkirane has indicated that the PJD will return to its ideological roots by re-anchoring its priorities in Islam and the Islamic reference. This will have been welcomed by many party members who have long felt that the party has strayed too far from its religious core and Islamic principles in order to make itself more acceptable to the Palace and to the Moroccan elite. 

Promise to be a strong opposition

Benkirane also promised that the party would work as a ‘strong, constructive and responsible opposition,’ stressing that he didn’t want the PJD to become part of the ‘chorus that switched overnight from supporting Prime Minister Aziz Akhannouch to criticising him.’

Quite how it will be able to work as an opposition force is unclear given that it only has 13 of the 395 seats in parliament and has lost a major proportion of its funding. However, with the outspoken Benkirane at the helm, the PJD will continue to be vocal in its criticisms, and will make the most of its return to opposition to challenge the new government at every turn. Yet, given that the party is in such disarray, there is a risk that it will become more of a one man show under Benkirane’s lead and that it will struggle to properly resuscitate itself. 

This excerpt is taken from Morocco Focus, our monthly intelligence report on Morocco. Click here to receive a free sample copy.


The November 2021 issue of Morocco Focus also includes the following:

International Relations

  • Bourita in Washington to consolidate relations with the US 
  • A serious, credible and realistic plan’
  • EU’s tougher stance
  • Expanding ties with Israel…
  • As relations with Algeria reach rock bottom
  • Domestic opposition to ties with Israel

Implications

Politics

  • New RNI-led government begins to feel the heat
  • Protests over COVID-19 passes
  • Education Minister Chakib Benmoussa triggers protests…
    • …and a fierce backlash
    • …but he remains resolute… 
    • …and has the King’s support
  • Benkirane back at the helm of the PJD
    • Controversial figure
    • Magnanimous tone
    • Strong opposition to 

Energy & Economy

  • Morocco renews Qatar Petroleum’s Tarfaya offshore license 
  • An imminent reduction of tax breaks?