DURING a cafe conversation here recently between two insurance office workers and a visiting American, the two young Moroccans asked repeated questions about the prospects for United States President-elect Bill Clinton.
But when the American asked about Morocco's own upcoming elections, one of the men scoffed, "Our elections aren't as interesting; the power is never questioned and people have little confidence that the results reflect the way they actually voted. You can't say we have a democracy here," he added, "at least not yet."
That comment is representative of a widespread lack of public enthusiasm here for the slow and delicate evolution toward democracy in one of the world's oldest monarchies.
At the same time, however, the "not yet" qualifying the Moroccan's otherwise grim outlook is a positive note reflecting the government's position that the country is in the midst of a progressive "democratic apprenticeship." And hopes are high that multiparty parliamentary elections announced for next April will constitute an important step forward.
Yet despite what many observers believe is King Hassan II's determination to transform his kingdom into a modern, prosperous nation during his reign, recent constitutional reforms toward a more democratic state and the prospect of April's elections have done little to galvanize a wary public.
"Some important progress has been made this year, but a deep skepticism is still what most characterizes the public," says Khalid Naciri, a constitutional law expert and member of one of Morocco's opposition parties. "People have no faith in the elections."
The skepticism stems in part from Morocco's two electoral experiences over the past few months: In September dubious election results showed 99.9 percent of voters voted "yes" to a new Constitution; and in October local elections were marked by widespread vote-buying.
"The danger for a young democratic experience like ours is that those who care lose faith and stop voting, while many others learn to think of their vote as something to sell, like a sack of potatoes," says Mr. Naciri. "It risks becoming a bad habit that undermines the country's modernization."
Government representatives acknowledge that vote-buying took place, but say it is more a sign of some voters' "immaturity" in democratic matters than a long-term threat to Morocco's democratic process. "A certain mentality exists that is not ready, not educated to democratic practices, and we have to address that," says one senior government official. "It is something that will change in a generation, which is also why we cannot rush."
Despite this year's flawed experiences, Morocco's April elections offer one bright spot on North Africa's rather bleak democratization calendar.
Next door in Algeria, the country's democratization process, which a year ago was promising among the freest elections ever in an Arab country, has been put on ice while the Army-backed government battles Islamic fundamentalists.
The situation is better in nearby Tunisia, but the country is still shackled by a single-party parliament that is a mere rubber stamp for President Zine el-Abdine Ben Ali.
In Morocco, there are no illusions about Hassan's hold on power. But the king is said to want to evolve, if slowly, to the role of a Moroccan democracy's arbiter. Beyond that, the national parliament does include opposition parties, with whom the king maintains a dialogue. The recent local elections brought gains for some opposition parties, and the new constitution offers a number of important innovations, observers say.
The Constitution inscribes a respect for human rights in its preamble - an issue that soured Morocco's international relations until 1991, when a number of high-profile improvements were undertaken. In addition, the document accords some reinforcement of parliament's powers, allows the opposition to seek legislative redress before the constitutional council (supreme court), calls on the prime minister, and not the king as in the past, to form the government, and reduces to 30 days the time in which the k ing must approve or reject a new law.
"This Constitution incorporates a number of things the king didn't necessarily want but which he ended up accepting for the country's progress," says Naciri, whose left-leaning Party of Progress and Socialism was one of the few opposition parties to recommend a yes vote on the Constitution. Others recommended abstention, arguing it didn't go far enough.
For some observers here, the acceptance of a more democratic constitution that cracks the door to a separation of powers is a further sign, after recent improvements in human rights, that Hassan sees Morocco's integration into the international political and economic mainstream as its only path to modernization.
"There's a realization that we aren't going to go any further economically without progress on a political level," says Abdelhak El Khyari, an economist at the University of Casablanca. Morocco's decade-old structural readjustment program is considered one of the International Monetary Fund's success stories, but per capita income remains very low and levels of international investment disappointing.
"Morocco sees its chance in latching on to the international, and particularly European, economic engine, but that won't be possible without a better political climate," Mr. Khyari adds. Indeed, many of the political and basic rights improvements can be traced to the independence of a democratizing Eastern Europe, he adds. "A serious concern about being passed up for Eastern Europe is part of the impetus for the changes," he adds.
Still, even an ardent advocate of change like Naciri says Morocco's democratization will only succeed if it occurs at the country's pace. "We have to make our own progress with the opportunities we've got." he says. "We can't learn democracy by correspondence."