As Morocco’s elections draw ever closer and with the country’s political parties busy campaigning, the Istiqlal party is undergoing a major internal crisis which was triggered by a spat that has broken out in its upper echelons over who should represent Istiqlal in its traditional stronghold of Fez.
The quarrel is centred around Hamid Chabat — Istiqlal’s 2012-2017 general secretary and two times mayor of Fez — who returned to the Kingdom in October 2020 and has suddenly assumed his role as an MP after an unexplained two-year absence. Chabat has a reputation for being somewhat brash and his outspoken attacks against his political rivals, which go down well with the party’s grass roots, upset those more traditional elements in the party leadership (see Morocco Focus, November 2020).
The problems began when Chabat made it clear that he intended to nominate himself in Fez for the upcoming elections. According to some media sources, he has once again set his sights on being Fez’s mayor. The city’s current mayor, Idriss Azami Al Idrissi, is from the ruling Parti de la Justice et du Développement (PJD).
This month, Chabat embarked on a blatant electioneering campaign: touring poor neighbourhoods; holding political meetings; and posting photos of himself meeting local residents and personalities on social media. He also told the media that the party’s candidates in Fez would be endorsed by local branches and party members in line with its bylaws.
This electioneering — and clear bid to control who can be endorsed to stand as the party’s candidate in Fez — angered the party leadership which refused to provide Chabat with the necessary accreditations to be able to stand. The spat is about a battle for control between Chabat, who has strong appeal with the party’s rank and file, and the party’s traditional leadership, led by current Secretary General, Nizar Baraka. Unlike Chabat, the latter comes from the old Fassi current of leadership which has been decidedly unwelcoming of Chabat since his return last year.
Dissolving the local branches
Unsure about how to deal with Chabat, the party held a meeting of its executive committee on 11 June. It decided to take drastic action and dissolved all its local branches and structures in the Fez prefecture.
According to Baraka, the decision was taken after Istiqlal’s regional co-ordinator in Fez-Meknes had explained how party affairs had deteriorated across all local organisations in the area, and how there was ‘tension and conflict’ between the grass roots and the party hierarchy. This was clearly a bid by the Baraka current to pull the rug from under Chabat’s feet. The executive committee announced that it would establish provisional organisational structures that will be under its direct supervision to lead the party locally. It has also put forward two candidates of its own for the elections.
This move — which cut off all paths for him to stand as an Istiqlal candidate either as an MP or as mayor at the polls — infuriated Chabat who declared that there was a ‘conspiracy inside the party in Fez,’ and asserted ‘if they have a problem with me, the solution would have been to sit with me.’
Hampering the elections
This spat is likely to hamper the party’s election performance in Fez. While Chabat may be a controversial figure, he has a strong and loyal following among the party’s rank and file in the city. There is currently talk that he may leave Istiqlal and join the ranks of another party. Rumour has it that he is already in talks with the Mouvement Populaire (MP) and, if as anticipated, Chabat ends up being nominated by a rival party, it could well dent Istiqlal’s election results.
Furthermore, the incident has prompted a backlash inside Istiqlal with some accusing Baraka of risking destroying the party. Istiqlal could therefore have a rocky time at these polls. It lost 14 seats in the 2016 parliamentary elections and won only 46 and the latest split and internal wrangling could well see it drop further.