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Safety-Valve Elections and the Arab Spring: The Weakening (and Resurgence) of Morocco's Islamist Opposition Party

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What purpose do elections serve in authoritarian states? Scholars often describe these elections as “safety valves” to contain opposition groups. Though we often use this safety valve terminology, it remains an abstract concept without sufficient empirical testing. In a study of the 2009 local elections in Morocco, I show how this safety-valve process played out in real politics. This article makes the case that the Moroccan regime undertook activities in an effort to weaken the Justice and Development Party (PJD), an Islamist opposition party. Using 20 original interviews and over 100 Arabic primary documents, I delineate the ways in which regime elites manipulated electoral rules and formal institutions, especially loyalist political parties, in an attempt to undermine the Islamists’ power between 2007 and 2010. I also examine how Arab Spring unrest turned back many of these efforts, empowering the PJD to secure a sweeping victory in the 2011 parliamentary elections. I conclude by discussing how scholars may reconsider safety-valve elections in authoritarian regimes as sequenced processes rather than one-time events. This case study of Morocco generates a new theory of safety-valve elections testable in other contexts.
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Keywords: Islamism; Justice and Development Party (PJD); Morocco; Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM); authoritarian elections

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Government,University of Texas at Austin, Austin,Texas, USA

Publication date: January 1, 2013

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