Morocco's king appoints businessman Akhannouch as prime minister

Leader of liberal RNI party is one of the country's richest men

President of Morocco's National Rally of Independents (RNI) Aziz Akhannouch, celebrates during a press conference in the capital Rabat, after his party came in first in parliamentary and local elections. AFP
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Morocco's King Mohammed VI on Friday appointed billionaire fuel tycoon Aziz Akhannouch as prime minister after his party came first in Wednesday's parliamentary election.

Mr Akhannouch, a former agriculture minister, is one of Morocco's richest men with a fortune estimated at about $2 billion. He has led the liberal National Rally of Independents (RNI) party since 2016.

On Wednesday, RNI won 102 of the parliament's 395 seats as the vote share of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) that had been the biggest in the previous two elections collapsed.

Under reforms introduced in 2011, the king picks the prime minister from the largest party in Parliament but retains veto power over Cabinet members. In recent years he has taken back more powers within the palace walls, analysts say.

RNI is seen as close to the royal establishment and Mr Akhannouch said in a speech after the election results were declared that he would "implement his majesty's vision".

"The main commitment of the party is to work seriously as long as we enjoy the confidence of citizens, to improve their daily lives, to achieve their aspirations and regain confidence in their representatives," he said.

King Mohammed VI has already announced a charter for a "new model of development" with a "new generation of reforms and projects" in the coming years. The plan's major aims include reducing Morocco's wealth gap and doubling per-capita economic output by 2035.

Morocco's economy shrank by 7.1 per cent in 2020, according to the Moroccan statistics institute, while the poverty rate rose to 11.7 per cent during the lockdown imposed to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr Akhannouch, whose holding company operates in the fuel and gas distribution business, and was targeted by a consumer boycott campaign in 2018 over prices, has pushed RNI as a champion of social and economic reforms.

It must now build a governing coalition that can command a parliamentary majority of at least 198 seats.

Mr Akhannouch said on Friday that he was ready to begin negotiations to form his coalition government.

"The most important thing is to have a coherent and united majority," he said in a televised address.

The next-largest party after Wednesday's vote was the Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM), which is also liberal and pro establishment, with 86 seats.

Mr Akhannouch will likely draw support from PAM and the conservative Istiqlal party, which took 81 seats.

The PJD had hoped to secure a third term leading a ruling coalition, 10 years after it swept to power after the unrest in the Middle East.

The party, whose leader Saad Dine El Otmani had been prime minister since 2017, complained of violations in the election including what it said was vote buying by rivals.

However, after securing only 13 seats compared to 125 in 2016, it has said it will go into opposition and not seek to join the next governing coalition. Mr Otmani and some other senior members have resigned from their party posts.

Economists and political scientists accused the PJD of failing to galvanise the economy, which contracted last year amid the coronavirus pandemic, or to tackle corruption and improve living conditions for the majority of the country’s 37 million people.

“The PJD was preoccupied with coalition governments and the politics of cutting deals with other parties to stay in power. Its promises in the last elections of improving living conditions for the people sounded all too familiar to many voters. Empty ones,” Younes Masskine, the head of the Moroccan Institute of Policy Analysis (MIPA), told The National.

This election was the first time Morocco's 18 million voters cast ballots for both parliament and local bodies on the same day, following a recent overhaul of electoral laws to boost turnout.

About 50 per cent of eligible voters participated, according to the interior minister, higher than the 43 per cent in the 2016 legislative polls.

Mr Akhannouch's party also came first in the local elections, winning 9,995 of the 31,503 seats, and in the regional poll with 196 of the 678 positions.

Updated: September 11, 2021, 12:58 PM