Ilyas El Omari is on the offensive. The bespectacled 49-year-old activist who heads Morocco's Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM) has spent years honing PAM's political message and worldview. Now, with the Kingdom heading into what is shaping up to be a decisive general election on October 7, Omari senses a political opening.
In recent months, the liberal PAM has steadily risen in prominence, emerging as the most significant sustained challenge to the prevailing conservative and religious status quo in Moroccan politics. Its success is all the more striking given its relative youth. The party was founded just over seven years ago, in February 2009. Its relatively sudden rise thus suggests that a major shift is underway in Moroccan politics.
RISE AND DECLINE OF THE PJD
In the spring and summer of 2011, Morocco underwent its own version of the Arab Spring, complete with widespread protests and petitions for change. The country's monarch, King Mohammed VI, responded with sweeping constitutional reforms which devolved significant authority from the palace to the people.
The reforms nudged the monarchy into an uneasy power-sharing arrangement with the Islamist Party for Justice and Development (PJD), which in November 2011 emerged as the country's leading political force after it won more than a quarter of the seats in Morocco's 395-person parliament. After that, despite its Islamist leanings and conservative values, the PJD managed to establish a modus vivendi of sorts with the Crown, buoyed by widespread popularity and an ambitious governing agenda.
But now, the bloom is off the PJD's rose. Although the party has ushered in notable economic progress (including a significant decline in the country's fiscal deficit), much of the public is disappointed that it has not lived up to its early promises of soaring growth. Neither has the PJD performed admirably in the field of "good governance," another key campaign pledge. Over the past year, several party officials have been embroiled in a series of unsavory scandals, ranging from instances of flagrant corruption to sexual escapades on a public beach.
The missteps have taken their toll. When surveyed this spring, approval for the PJD was found to have fallen significantly, from 62 percent in late 2014 to under 50 percent today. Confidence in the party's capacity to govern has similarly declined.
A DIFFERENT COURSE
Omari and the PAM believe they can chart a better course, at least on social issues. "We are aiming to develop society by tackling creeping conservatism both within the state and outside," Omari recently remarked to the Agence France–Presse. "What's happening in our society is scary... violent reactions against the modernization of social mores.
The PAM's agenda is a response to this perceived drift. In a recent interview, Omari outlined for me the core principles and ideas animating his party: "Our platform includes human rights, empowering women, and fighting terrorism through security and military means, but also ideological means. We also support the integration of technology into government and the necessary reform and modernization of education."
For PAM, empowering women is of particular importance. Although the King's 2004 reform of the Moudawana, as the country's Family Code is known, significantly elevated the status of Moroccan women (giving them, among other things, the right to initiate divorces), a noticeable gender gap still exists. The PJD has perpetuated this problem, campaigning against equal inheritance for Moroccan women and advocating for a minimalist role for women in the country's overwhelmingly male-dominated parliament.
Omari sees this as a cardinal sin. "The PAM is built on the connection between modernity and democracy," he explained to me. "There is no modernity or democracy without progress in women's rights." This conviction has made his party the foremost champion of what he calls the "freedom of women" in Moroccan society, with the PAM putting forth two separate electoral lists comprised entirely of female candidates. The ultimate goal is to increase the number of women parliamentarians by nearly 50 percent (from today's total of 67 to just shy of 100).
The PAM's path to power, however, is an exceedingly narrow one. Polling done earlier this year by the Tariq Ibn Ziyad Initiative, an independent public policy institute, found that the party and its leader command just 15 percent of the popular vote, as compared to the 45 percent support still enjoyed by the PJD and its Secretary General, Abdelilah Benkirane. (More recent assessments of the political playing field have been complicated by an official ban on polling by the country's Interior Ministry in August, ostensibly issued in order "to preserve the credibility and transparency of the electoral process.") Moreover, the PAM is part of a densely crowded political field. Currently, as in the 2011 poll, no fewer than 30 separate parties are vying for representation in Morocco's next parliament.
Still, Omari and his compatriots remain optimistic. Last year, the PAM unexpectedly bested the PJD in municipal elections in what many within the party, at least, see as a portent of things to come. Moreover, declining economic conditions and rising discontent with the PJD's political stewardship have helped create an appetite for change.
With these tailwinds, the PAM aims to "liberate" Morocco from the PJD, and set the country on a more progressive course. The alternative, warns Omari, is nothing short of "catastrophe." Those are strong words, and they reflect the prevailing campaign strategy adopted by the PAM: go big, or go home. It is a principle that will be put to the test in just a few days' time.