Morocco's Islamist premier promises to continue with austerity despite opposition boycott

RABAT, Morocco – Morocco’s embattled Islamist prime minister promised to move forward with painful austerity measures despite opposition, sounding a defiant note before parliament Friday.

Abdelilah Benkirane spoke before a half-empty chamber in his monthly address after opposition parties boycotted the session in an unprecedented change for the country’s normally tame politics.

“We are here for reforms and we will enact the necessary reforms regardless of the price,” he said, warning that if the country’s hemorrhaging finances weren’t brought under control now, Morocco would be forced one day to make painful reforms by the World Bank.

Morocco’s economic growth has suffered from the economic crisis in Europe as well as a bad harvest in 2012, but it is also burdened with a heavy spending bill on subsidies and salaries when the previous government spent lavishly to defuse the 2011 Arab Spring demonstrations.

International financial institutions have all recommended Morocco rein in a ballooning subsidies bill for fuel, flour and sugar that has jumped from $3.5 billion in 2010 to $6.7 billion in 2012.

The budget deficit rose to a dire 7 per cent of gross domestic product in 2012 and could keep increasing if urgent measures aren’t taken, Benkirane warned.

His moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party won the most votes in 2011 elections on promises to reform the economy and fight corruption.

Its efforts have been stalled by unco-operative coalition partners, however, and on May 11, the second largest party, Istiqlal, pulled out of the governing alliance, in protest over Benkirane’s austerity plans.

The government now awaits King Mohammed VI, the country’s supreme authority, to return from vacation in France and decide its fate.

The government has already lowered fuel subsidies and in April suspended $1.75 billion in public spending to help balance the budget.

“The schools and hospitals which aren’t built today, we can build them tomorrow, the essential is to save the current situation and reduce the deficits,” Benkirane said.