Local elections in the Arab world, and their potential for democratic change, have long been an understudied force. But in the Arab-majority countries that have held, or plan to hold, elections in the period between fall 2015 and fall 2016—Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Palestine—local elections have become a new vehicle through which citizens can express their concerns about governance.
As a way to appease the populace after the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011, King Mohammed VI of Morocco promised to pursue a number of democratic reforms, including in local elections. Some of those reforms were finally realized on September 4, 2015 when citizens had the opportunity to vote directly for their local and regional leaders for the first time.
In another first, these elections tested the durability of the country’s most dramatic political change post-Spring: the defeat of the pro-monarchy parties by the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) during the November 2011 legislative elections. In the latest round of local elections, the PJD had to compete with 11 parties, but managed to secure a small plurality with a quarter of the total votes. This confirmed, for the first time, that the PJD’s message of good governance continues to resonate with voters as it shifted from an opposition to governing party. In fact, good governance became a priority during the election. Although Morocco’s main opposition group, the pro-monarchy Authenticity and Modernity Party, sought to distract voters by emphasizing the PJD’s Islamist undertones, the PJD underscored its anti-corruption efforts and fiscally responsible policies, which it claimed characterized its tenure in Parliament. Although the government has in fact accomplished very little on either front, the PJD’s continued ability to draw voters not only demonstrates its appeal, but also the monarchy’s degree of tolerance to opposition within its governments. And despite the lack of demonstrable progress, observers were surprised to note that the PJD had won an absolute majority in urban areas not traditionally supportive of the party, such as