Saturday, 2 July 2011

Moroccans vote "yes" to revised constitution


Interior minister says 98 per cent of those who took part in referendum voted "yes" to King devolving some powers.

Thousands have rallied in support of the reforms, but critics say the changes do not go far enough [Reuters]

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Moroccans have overwhelmingly voted to approve a revised constitution that will curb King Mohammed VI's near absolute powers in the north African nation, the country's interior minister has said.

Taib Cherkaoui, the interior minister, announced shortly after the voting closed on Friday that the poll showed 98 per cent in favour of the changes, with 94 per cent of stations reporting.

"The referendum went ahead in a normal atmosphere, and showed the degree of interaction between the people and the content of the constitutional project," he said, adding that 30 per cent of the voters were under 35.

The polls closed at 1800 GMT on Friday after 11 hours of voting and the final voting percentage was recorded at 72.65 per cent.

Mohammed announced the referendum last month in what is widely seen as a move to ward off "Arab Spring" street protests sweeping the region.

Pro-democracy movements in Morocco have been calling for more rights and greater freedoms since the beginning of the Arab Awakening earlier this year.

The revised constitution grants the government executive powers, but retains the king at the helm of the army, religious authorities and the judiciary and still allows him to dissolve parliament, though not unilaterally as is the case now.

It does, however, remove reference to the king as "sacred", though he retains the title of "Commander of the Faithful" and is considered "inviolable".

The new constitution will also guarantee more rights for women and will make Berber an official language, alongside Arabic.

'King has responded'

The voters who showed up at the nearly 40,000 polling stations around the country Friday tended to talk more about their faith in the king, rather than something as abstract as a new constitution.

Lachen Haddad, a member of Morocco's popular movement, told Al Jazeera that in Morocco "the king has responded to the street".

"We have democracy, now we need to have democrats to implement that," Haddad said.

Al Jazeera's Hashem Ahelbarra, reporting from Rabat, the capital, said voters were more concerned about other issues than the powers the king holds.

"The issue in Morocco is not just curbing the powers of the monarchy, which has been at the very centre of political life for the past 13 centuries," he said.

"It is definitely going to be seen as a major victory for the king of Morocco, however this is not going to be the end for the pro-democracy movement. Its activists say that the referendum campaign was not balanced, it was not fair that there were targets of a smear campaign.

"What is ... interesting for Moroccans is to see how this new constitution is going to be implemented. They would like to see wages going higher; less unemployment; more transparent political systems; less political corruption; less mismanagement of public funds ... and a vibrant parliament.

"This is going to be a very long, protracted political process that starts today with the reform of the constitution and then elections, which are expected in October."

King's concessions

On June 17, Mohammed, who took over the world's longest-serving dynasty in 1999, conceded some of his political powers to the prime minister and the parliament while keeping his role as a power broker.

"We have managed to develop a new democratic constitutional charter," he said in a televised speech, adding that the constitution "enshrines a citizenship-based monarchy".

But critics say the changes do not go far enough and a low turnout could still spur demands for bolder changes.

The country's February 20 Movement has continued to hold protests, organised through websites such as Facebook and YouTube, since the reforms were announced and maintains they do not go far enough.

In a statement posted on its Facebook page on Friday, the movement called on its supporters to stay away from the polls.

"We are calling for a boycott of this referendum because the constitution it proposes consecrates absolutism and will not make corruption disappear," it said.

After the poll result was announced, Elaabadila Chbihna, a member of the February 20 movement, told the Associated Press that his group was doubtful that the result was accurate.

"Now we have become a banana monarchy,'' he said.

The street movement has not been as extensive as those which toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt.

It is calling merely for the king's powers to be reduced to those wielded by the British or Spanish monarchs, rather than for him to step down altogether.

But while Mohammed's personal popularity may swing many voters in favour of the reforms, the margin of victory could be eroded by resentment at what is seen as a wide disparity between rich and poor, and sense of alienation from the political elite.

In Washington, Mark Toner, the US State Department spokesman, said that his country welcomed the peaceful conduct of the referendum, and saw it as "an important step in Morocco's democratic development".