Morocco's referendum on reform: Model for Arab Spring?

Some Western observers see Morocco's referendum on constitutional reform today as forging a new path for embattled Arab leaders. It is widely expected to pass, but many protesters boycotted.

Maghreb Arab Press/Handout/Reuters
Morocco's Princess Lalla Hasna casts her ballot at a voting station in Rabat Friday in a referendum on a revised constitution offered by King Mohammed to placate "Arab Spring" street protesters. The 'yes' camp was tipped to win despite boycott calls by opponents.

Moroccans voted Friday in a referendum on constitutional reforms, amid deep disagreement over whether it represented a new path for reform in a troubled region or another autocrat's hollow bid to diffuse popular discontent.

"I voted yes because this new constitution introduces good changes in the society, without the use of violence," said Marwan Akroum, a company manager who had just emerged from a polling station in the popular Rabat neighborhood of Yacoub Mansour. "I believe this reform is a unique model in the Muslim Arab world."

The proposed changes give more executive power to the prime minister, strengthen the judiciary, stress the importance of gender equality, and recognize Berber as a national language. Yet, critics point out, the changes fall far short of transforming Morocco into a European-style constitutional monarchy, as the opposition wanted.

"This reform is partial," says Elabadila Chbihna, one of the coordinators of the February 20 protest movement, which boycotted the referendum. "We are not at the vegetable market, negotiating prices. The king cannot propose an 80 percent democracy."

With the new constitution, King Mohammed VI – whose family has reigned for three centuries – looses his "sacred" status. Yet he remains the Amir al Mu'minin, the Commander of the Faithful, thus maintaining power over the religious establishment. He also retains control over the defense and security forces. He can still impose emergency laws. While the prime minister can appoint all ministers, the king has veto power on those appointments and all new laws need to be confirmed by him.

"The power remains concentrated in the hands of the monarch," says Othmane Baqa, member of the Conference democratique du Travail, a workers' union with the February 20 movement. He supported the boycott, he said, because the king did not take into consideration proposals submitted by the opposition.

"The reforms were imposed by the monarchy, there was not a constitutional assembly composed by members of the civil society," he said, sitting in the headquarters of the union in central Rabat.

Praise for king's 'clear commitment to democracy'

King Mohammed VI announced the reforms, meant to curb the power of the 300-year-old dynasty, in an historic March 9 speech as protests were sweeping his country and the broader Arab world.

Some see the proposed reforms as opening a new chapter of the Arab Spring in which the regime, with no bullets or teargas, introduces changes itself.

The European Union said the reform initiative "signals a clear commitment to democracy." Prominent Western analysts have hailed the changes as a new beginning.

"What's so important about what the Moroccan king has done is that he is forging a different model of change in the Arab world," wrote Kenneth M. Pollack recently for the Washington-based Brookings Institution, where he is the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

Mohammed Ziane, the founder of the Moroccan Liberal Party, supported the reforms with enthusiasm, linking the changes in Morocco with regional events. "This is a beginning," he says on the phone from Casablanca. "Moroccans and the populations of the region finally started thinking about democracy, asking to have more control on their governments."

Why some opposition leaders boycotted the vote

But some opposition leaders were not impressed by the proposed changes, and urged the population to boycott Friday's vote.

Those calling for a boycott came together under the umbrella of the February 20 movement - named for the day of the first anti-regime demonstration.

Similar to the loose-knit coalitions that have led protests in other Arab countries, the movement is made up of young Moroccans, bloggers, Internet activists, small labor unions, some ultra-leftist groups and the Justice and Spirituality Organization, an illegal but tolerated Islamist movement. It has been campaigning against the referendum and organizing protests.

The efforts of the opposition parties were out-muscled though by the campaign for a "yes" vote, which were more organized and widespread.

In every Rabat neighborhood, big posters urged voters to go to the polls; in popular markets banners declared shopkeepers' support for the king; imams in the mosques last Friday urged devotees to go to the polls and the king's smiling face was on the front page of every national magazine. Opposition activists claimed that local and regional associations, under pressure from the government, shuttled people by bus to attend pro-referendum demonstrations in many cities.

There is little doubt in Morocco about the outcome of the referendum: most analysts expect a resounding "yes," thanks at least partly to the monarch's long history of coopting political rivals into alliances with the regime.

So the success of the king's move will be measured not by the result but by voter turnout. The national press agency, MAP, said on Friday afternoon that 60 percent of 13 million registered voters cast ballots, a percentage difficult to confirm independently.

Implementation will be key

The real challenge for king Mohammed VI starts with the closing of the ballot stations.

"This constitution has potential, it strips the king of a lot of power," said Maati Monjib, a professor of politcal history at Rabat University. "The changes introduced in 1996 in a previous constitutional referendum were never implemented. The future of the reform depends now on the pressure the street can still exert."

The opposition of February 20 has announced it will hold demonstrations every Sunday in the main Moroccan cities.

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