After my post a couple weeks ago that was critical of both Moroccan and American cultures, I resolved to only have positive posts for a while. However, elections in Morocco have just happened. And, like anywhere else in the world, politics brings out the worst in people in my community. Talking about local politics has been interesting and I’ve learned a lot about the community over the past few weeks.
The current elections are nationwide, but they are local elections, not national ones. People are electing representatives for the commune. In rural areas, a commune consists of several villages. My commune, for example, contains eight villages and around 4,500 people. In urban areas, a commune consists of the city and the surrounding area. The commune is responsible for administrative issues and development.
In my commune of eight villages, there are 11 elected leaders. The name for this position is mulsheih. Most villages elect one mulsheih, but the three biggest villages in the commune elect two mulsheihen. The mulsheihen serve five-year terms. After the election, the mulsheihen of the commune meet and, from that group of eleven, elect a president for the commune. The election of the president of the commune is significant as he has much more power than the mulsheihen. As far as I can tell, the president is pretty much all-powerful. He has control over the budget for the commune and over hiring and firing at the local administration building.
Everyone over 18 years old has a vote, man and woman. Unlike America, convicted felons do not lose their right to vote.
Now the post will turn negative. Politics here are completely Machiavellian. Corruption is pervasive. People have little faith in the current candidates. When I ask my host dad about who he will vote for, he says that he will throw his ballot in the fire (not actually true). He says all the candidates are the same – worthless and greedy. People often ask me if I know what politics in Morocco are. I say no. They say: politics is just another word for lies. There are unfortunate norms here about what the role of elected officials is. Here in my community, the ideal of politicians being public servants has not taken hold. The power that comes with the elected positions of mulsheihen and president is to be bought and sold.
People talk openly about candidates selling votes. My friend told me that he sold his vote for 50 dirhams (about 6-7 dollars). However, family connections tend to play a larger role in election decisions. I ask lots of people around town whom they will vote for. Mostly people dodge my question and don’t answer. Those who do answer invariably say they are voting for someone because he is the son of their uncle or their brother or their father in law. I have heard one person make an argument for a candidate based upon his/her qualifications. My host mom told me she was voting for someone because he is literate – but the candidate also happens to be related to her. Many people have told me they will not reelect our current representative because he is corrupt. Although it is too bad that we currently have a corrupt mulsheih, at least people recognize that and unwilling to reelect him.
Considering that candidates do not have platforms for their candidacy, it could be no other way. I have not heard a candidate say anything about what he promises to do if elected. Thus money and connections decide people’s votes.
The greatest power that the president of the commune has is hiring and firing administrators at the one government building in the commune, which happens to be in my village. There are maybe 10-15 employees at this building. There is probably enough work at the building for one or two full-time employees. Since most of the employees do nothing all day long, filling the posts with competent people is not a priority. Instead the power that the president has of hiring and firing is used to a) make money and b) further entrench his power. Jobs at the commune building often go to the highest bidder, with the president collecting the money. The one person who works at the commune who has the power to expose the corruption is afraid to do so for fear of losing his job.
Roughly speaking, my commune is made up of two tribes: Ait Sliman and Ait Moussa. My village and two nearby villages make up Ait Moussa. Ait Sliman, however, has more people and thus has a little more power in the government. Most of the commune employees are from Ait Sliman. This angers people in my village and they say that the president of the commune just gives the jobs away to his family and his connections so they will keep voting for him.
Many of the commune employees are illiterate. Considering that the jobs at the commune mostly involve paperwork, this makes these employees nearly useless. They make tea. During the winter, they cut wood for the stoves in the commune building. Other than that, they sit around outside, talking. I am friends with many of the employees. I asked one of them (who is illiterate) how he got his job. He told me that his father is connected (he is from Ait Sliman). Another illiterate employee told me that he bought his job from the president. I can’t really blame the employees for exploiting their connections to get a job: they tend to be the people in town who can afford to send their kids away to better schools.
Everyone is completely aware of the corruption. It is accepted as a fact of life. Most are complicit. Honestly, it’s a depressing subject to talk about with people. Talking about politics inevitably leads to people slandering their neighbors. I had a conversation with a friend on election day and he told me, “We’re bad. The people in this village are bad. Seventy percent of people here are bad. Thirty percent are good.” These generalizations about how bad people are often turn into generalizations about Moroccans on a national scale. Someone else told me that America should not let Moroccans into America because they would corrupt people there until we were all corrupt.
There is one new development that lets me put a positive spin on a generally negative situation. A new law was just passed in Morocco that creates special posts for women in the commune government. Each commune is obligated to elect two women to the posts of mulsheihen. These women have their own elections for new posts. So instead of 11 mulsheihen in the commune, there will be 13 this year. It’s great that the Moroccan central government is mandating the inclusion of women in politics. I wonder what role the female mulsheihen will have in government once the elections are over; I fear they will be marginalized. The marginalization of women in politics is taken for granted. Obviously, it is a major obstacle to women achieving equal status in the community and household.
Although they are mostly excluded from elected government, women are able to vote. I have limited access to the politics that go on in the household, but what I have seen is interesting. My sense is that husband and wife (and their children of voting age) vote for the same candidate. I believe that political interests are conceived of in terms of a collective family unit, rather than individually. The way this decision is made varies from household to household. In my host family (which is exceptional, given the advanced age of my host dad), I witnessed my host mom explaining how to fill out his ballot to my host dad and making sure that he knows how to vote for the right person.
As someone who is working for the development of this community, witnessing its political process is disheartening. My ideal of a public servant is that he/she should govern with the interest of his/her constituency in mind rather than personal interests. An elected official in my community and I should be working together on projects, but our interests do not often overlap. I see the political sphere as a great opportunity for a community’s advancement, but that is nearly impossible in this environment.
I’ve recently read two books on development theory that were very critical of the west’s efforts to aid the third world, especially Africa. Government corruption and the failure of public institutions are often cited as obstacles to development. Witnessing this election drives that point home for me. Promoting “good governance” as a part of development has been popular for decades now. How an outside force can reverse a culture of corruption, I have no idea. I am interested to see how that works. One of the programs that I’m looking at for graduate school has a specific concentration that focuses on training development workers to promote good governance. I’d love to take some of these classes. It seems ridiculous to me that you could train someone promote good governance. Here in my community I tell people what politics is like in America and hold it up as an ideal. They agree that that is a good way of politicking, but do not change their ways.
Sadly, I do not think this is simply a failure of the elected officials to uphold high standards. Like I said above, people here are complicit in the corruption. The election is seen as an opportunity to further the interests’ of one’s household by voting for a relative or selling one’s vote. If a community collectively decided that its votes could not be bought or dictated by relationships and connections, it could hold its public servants to a higher standard, judged by their performance in office.
….I’m tempted to write a brief description of the corruption in American politics as a comparison. But I don’t think I should be making such comparisons for fear of idealizing the American political situation and condemning the Moroccan one more than I already have. Suffice it to say, my little community in rural Morocco does not have a monopoly on corruption or poor governance. The ability of politics to corrupt otherwise good people is unaffected by cultural differences.
Elections Part II – After the Vote
The votes have been tallied and some people are happy with the result and some people aren’t. Having taken a couple days to reflect on what I wrote earlier, I want to add on to what I said.
Things aren’t as bad as I wrote. Despite the ugliness of the elections, the people in my village really are good people. And although people make their election decisions differently than I would, that doesn’t make them invalid. The election did reveal a vibrant political scene that everyone in the community was involved in.
The other important thing to add on is that I have a very limited view of the political process; I rely mostly on what people tell me. Speech here tends to be absolutist. People used to say that I did not know any Tamazight, even though I could have basic conversations. Now they say that I know everything, although my vocabulary is limited, my listening comprehension could be vastly improved, and I generally speak like a bumbling idiot. When describing a person, he/she is either good or bad. Everything is well or the very sky is falling down upon us. Since I am dependent upon these absolutist judgments for what I pass on to you all, my conclusions about elections are bound to lack the subtly that would accurately describe the circumstances.
On a positive note, there are non-political institutions that do some good here in Morocco. The past week I’ve been recruiting women for a traditional birthing attendant training happening this fall. I rely on local associations to help me identify good candidates for the training and they have been very helpful. The people that I’m working with do not directly benefit from the help that they give me, but are nonetheless very willing to help me out.
In addition to recruiting women for the training, I’ve been helping my host family with their annual barley harvest. It’s hot work. The most enjoyable part of the work is listening to the songs that people sing while they work. They are very soulful and express the difficulties of life in the mountains. I hope to get hold of a microphone and recorder before the wheat harvest so I can capture the sound.
There is one funny story from harvest. Having loaded up our mule with a relatively small load of grass, my host dad and I started walking back to our barn. My host dad was walking very slowly and told me to go ahead. I told him I didn’t know right way to take the mule. He told me to go ahead anyways. When I came to a fork in the road, I tried to go right, but the mule refused to budge. I assumed the mule knew better than I, so I went left. This led me to a precarious road, upsetting the mule and causing him to shake his load free. As I was trying to calm the mule and reload the grass (a difficult task for one normal person, impossible for me), my least favorite person in my community came walking down the road from the other direction. For those of you who have been following my posts from the start, there was a guy who threatened me in my first few weeks in my community and was subsequently sent to prison for six months. Ever since his release from prison, he completely ignores me and will do a 180 degree turn if we are walking towards each other. Well he saw me struggling with the mule and stopped in his tracks. He stood there awkwardly, trying to hide behind a tree for about a minute, watching me fail to get the grass back on my mule’s back. He couldn’t turn around, however, because he had come to fetch a carpet that was laid out to dry only 10 feet from where my load of grass was dropped. I couldn’t help but laugh at the situation. He eventually got the courage to pick up his carpet. Once he walked away, a couple kids spotted me struggling to reload my mule and came to help me. They took me back to the fork in the road and pointed me on my way (I had been right. Lesson: never trust a mule’s brain over your own).
Things are well. I had been in site for about 10 days before coming into my market town today. I’m feeling comfortable here. I’m glad to be busy with work and helping my family with their harvest. People are good to me.