In Morocco, King Mohammed VI calls for “moralizing” political life

These are only a few lines in a four-page text, but they are the ones that caught the attention

In Morocco, King Mohammed VI calls for “moralizing” political life

These are only a few lines in a four-page text, but they are the ones that caught the attention. In a message to Parliament on January 17, King Mohammed VI highlighted “the need to moralize parliamentary life” in Morocco and called for “the adoption of a code of ethics that is legally binding for both chambers of the 'legislative institution'.

The announcement comes as a wave of legal cases hits elected officials of all sides. Since the 2021 legislative elections, around twenty parliamentarians have been prosecuted by the courts, six are behind bars and two have been dismissed by the Constitutional Court – not to mention the dozens of presidents and vice-presidents of municipalities dismissed by the Ministry of interior. And the list apparently isn’t closed. The seizure, on the order of an investigating judge, of the property and assets of the president of the municipal council of Ksar El-Kebir is the latest sanction taken by the courts against a political figure.

Revealed in December, the alleged involvement in international drug trafficking of Abdenbi Bioui, president of the Oriental region, and deputy Saïd Naciri, boss of Wydad Casablanca (the country's main football club) and president of prefectural council of Casablanca, marked the high point of this judicial sequence. The accusations against these two elected officials fuel a media drama fueled by the almost daily revelations from police reports.

If the increase in cases is debated – are there more than before? –, the simultaneity of their revelation has revived an expression heavy with symbols: the words “sanitation campaign” are on everyone’s lips. The formula echoes the “operations” carried out in his time by Hassan II to put an end, officially, to corruption. The sovereign tried it in 1971, after the failed coup of Skhirat, partly to satisfy his army; then in 1996, convinced that the kingdom was paying the price for the informal economy. Several hundred people – elected officials, but especially senior civil servants and bosses – were arrested, before a royal pardon freed almost everyone.

Managing conflicts of interest

If his father had sought to moralize capitalism by imprisoning as an example – which caused terror in business circles – Mohammed VI seems to want to moralize politics quietly, as if the ball was now in the Parliament camp. However, nothing has yet filtered out on the content of the code of ethics, especially since the House of Representatives, like that of advisors, already obeys internal regulations.

“Its content relates only to general principles of ethics, transparency and independence. The challenge is to equip ourselves so that these principles are applied to the letter,” underlines MP Abdelmajid Fassi Fihri, member of Istiqlal, one of the three parties in government. The parliamentarian, elected from the city of Fez, already considers the supervision of the conflict of interest as one of the major issues of the text: “We must put an end to a situation where elected officials defend in committee measures which go into the meaning of their interests. »

But then, what to put in this code? On what schedule? The message of Mohammed VI is subject to all interpretations. The political class interprets the sovereign's announcement as a sign that change must come, and quickly. Monday January 29, a first working meeting is planned between the group presidents in the House of Representatives. This is “Parliament’s big priority,” says Driss Sentissi, the leader of the Popular Movement deputies. “We need to reach a text quickly,” recommends Nabil Benabdallah, secretary general of the Party of Progress and Socialism, who wants the code to be in place “well before” the 2026 legislative elections.

The pressure is strong. Fueled by judicial news, the climate of mistrust which surrounds elected officials is reflected even in the press, whose vitriolic editorials denounce their “moral bankruptcy”. Seized by the fear of “all rotten”, the latter insist: be careful not to mix the bad sheep with the rest of the flock. And recall that since 2011, their immunity no longer applies in the event of legal proceedings. “The majority of deputies are honest and do the job,” assures Abdelmajid Fassi Fihri.

Unfortunately, these statements are undermined by the rankings. In 2022, the corruption perception index established by the NGO Transparency International put Morocco's score at 38 out of 100, down five points since 2018. Certainly, elected officials do not bear the full weight of prevarication - less than 1% of MPs have been prosecuted or convicted – but the sense of a corrupt political elite is everywhere. In its latest annual report, the National Authority for Probity, Prevention and the Fight against Corruption (INPPLC) observed that “the health sector remains the most affected by corruption, followed by political parties, the government and Parliament", according to Moroccan citizens.

A legislative arsenal considered insufficient

However, in recent years the executive has shown a certain activism in terms of transparency. But the legislative arsenal is considered insufficient by part of civil society. The right of access to information? Too limited. The law on whistleblowers who report acts of corruption? It does not protect either civil servants or private sector employees. The bill on the criminalization of illicit enrichment? Still in the boxes. As for the national anti-corruption strategy launched in 2016, “the commission responsible for its monitoring and evaluation has only met twice in seven years,” regrets Ahmed Bernoussi, deputy secretary general of Transparency Maroc.

In the opinion of observers, the overlap between business and politics represents the submerged part of the corruption iceberg. “It is linked to the way in which the electoral process is organized in Morocco,” explains geography doctor David Goeury, author of numerous analyzes on the Moroccan political field. Militant parties, whose members campaign on a voluntary basis, are fewer and fewer in number. Consequently, the majority of parties prefer to rely on notables, who have a triple advantage: they are known locally, they have contacts and, above all, financial resources. A campaign can be very expensive and some notables do not hesitate to resort to vote buying. »

These alliances between parties and notables culminated in rural areas in 2021, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which weakened populations, and the simultaneous organization of legislative, regional and municipal elections. “Citizens have been drowned in money,” says Nabil Benabdallah, who pleads for the code of ethics to be accompanied by major reforms, first and foremost the strengthening of control over electoral expenses. Other political figures see in the text desired by the king an “orientation” to better regulate the choice of candidates for elections, especially when it comes to business leaders.

The main challenge for the political class emerges: getting Moroccans from big cities back to the polls. Because if the legal cases are shocking, they do not alone explain the growing disaffection of voters in the main cities, "where the links between parties and notables are the least exacerbated", notes David Goeury. According to the Tafra research center, the number of valid votes in Casablanca, Fez and Rabat fell “by almost 30%” between the 2016 and 2021 legislative elections.

For Moroccan parliamentarians, the future code of ethics sounds above all like a warning. Faced with a historically high unemployment rate and a public school in crisis, citizens in urban areas want urgent answers. At the risk of turning again, in three years, to the first party in Morocco: that of abstention.