(Above: WFD’s Head of Communications, Alex Stevenson interviews Mr Rachid Talbi El-Alami, President of the Moroccan House of Representatives)
Under Mr Rachid Talbi El-Alami, President of the House of Representatives, the Moroccan Parliament has made great progress in turning the promise of 2011’s constitution into reality.
“Today the Parliament is a power – it was not before,” he says. Westminster Foundation for Democracy has been privileged to support Mr El-Alami in this work. Ahead of the EU Twinning launch event on Monday 13 June 2016, the Speaker granted an interview with WFD’s Head of Communications, Alex Stevenson, to discuss the progress made – and the challenges still to come.
“People ask why Morocco was not as affected by the Arab Spring,” Mr El-Alami says. “The simple reason is that we have institutions.” But these were not “modern, professional, effective”. The new constitution offered the opportunity to change this. It is, the Speaker says, “an ongoing process, and a positive process”.
Under Morocco’s new separation of powers, the Parliament has been established alongside the executive and the judiciary system. Embedding such a significant change, however, is not straightforward. In total, 25 organic laws were required to complete the constitution. “We are at the beginning of the process, because it is not easy to change quickly,” the Speaker explains. Take the judiciary system: after four years of negotiation, including two in the parliament, the process of debating the details of the changes continues. But the Parliament, Government and the Palace have worked together to ensure the process has proceeded smoothly and effectively.
There are many elements to this work. Giving the public’s representatives the opportunity to initiate legislation; finding ways to build all of Morocco’s languages and dialects into the Parliament’s work; and developing a new approach to the budget and to financial scrutiny are all important in shaping the Parliament’s new role. “We have learned a lot from Westminster Foundation for Democracy that helped us,” Mr El-Alami kindly adds. “The Parliament is a place for responsible, positive, constructive debate. As I told my friends, the MPs who are sometimes not aware of the progress we are making: this is the first time in history we have voted more than 350 laws in one small period.”
(Above: WFD Governor, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, delivers speech on behalf of UK Speaker John Bercow at launch of EU Twinning programme)
It is an amazing achievement, especially because it comes alongside efforts to develop fresh approaches to the Parliament’s new expanded responsibilities for holding the Moroccan Government to account. Mr El-Alami has made public policy evaluation a personal priority. “It should be based on figures. It should be rational. It should respond to [citizens’] demands.” The new procedures which underpin this work are not yet complete. Again, though, the Speaker’s commitment to completing the job in the best possible way is clear. “I prefer to be late and make something professional, rather than hurry it.”
Another theme of Mr El-Alami’s approach is his determination to raise the professional standards of the Parliament. “To achieve these reforms, we need a stronger administration,” he says. New information and communication technologies have been introduced, enabling the digitisation of the parliamentary archives. Civil society and the press are now able to connect with the Parliament’s work more readily. And MPs now receive information “as quick as possible” to enable them to decide their position before votes. “All this we have done without any problem,” the Speaker says. This new system has not been exported from any other country, but rather built to “fit the Moroccan context, the Moroccan culture,” balancing the country’s conservative and progressive elements. Striking the right balance is not easy, but the Speaker is confident his approach is the right one. “I believe that Moroccans want the change and we are making this change.”
Throughout our conversation, Mr El-Alami’s conviction about the need to connect the Parliament with ordinary citizens is very clear. His approach, it seems, is as much about serving the interests of the Moroccan people as it is about establishing the technical processes of accountability. “Yes, the Moroccan people feel that we do not take care of them,” he says. “We have to change this image, this perception.” A better-functioning Parliament can achieve greater credibility, the Speaker believes. “We have to produce information instead of giving them the opportunity to go to rumours… and the information should be produced institutionally and professionally.”
The pressure for parliaments to respond quickly in the digital age is a common theme encountered by parliaments around the world. “We are not going to face it alone – we should do it with our friends,” the Speaker says. “For that reason, we believe that the most helpful is Westminster Foundation for Democracy.” This is about how Morocco and Britain – together with France and the other partners of the new EU Twinning partnership – can be “strong” and “credible”. For this reason, he explains, “we have worked with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, and it’s a lot to thank you for – we have learned a lot.” The Ninth Committee, “copied from the British Parliament” and the work of its Public Accounts Committee, is an example of this; another is the evaluation of public policies. “The parliaments should not waste a lot of time to understand something we can provide quickly,” the Speaker adds. “The process, the timing, the connections, the challenges, the future – this is why we work with Westminster Foundation.”
(Above: WFD’s Regional Director for MENA and Asia, Dina Melhem signs MOU with Mr El-Alami, President of the House of Representatives in March 2016)
This sense of urgency is very striking – and reflects Mr El-Alami’s awareness that while constitutional issues are important, it is the real issues of everyday life which are most pressing. “Why are we accelerating the reforms and want to achieve them in this mandate, and finish with that?” he asks. “Because the real challenge is not the institution inside the Moroccan political system… the most important challenge is terrorism. The development of the Moroccan country – poverty alleviation – water – climate change – these are real challenges that the Parliament, the Government and other institutions should face.”
Yes, the Parliament now has new powers as granted by the 2011 constitution. But Mr El-Alami is not just interested in completing the process of establishing these for their own sake. He is doing so in order to achieve his overall vision of a Parliament which can use its new powers to help improve Moroccan citizens’ lives. Since 2011 the Parliament has become, in his words, the “central process of democracy”.