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Power shift

July 1, 2011

Moroccans are voting on a new constitution which, if passed, would see King Mohammed VI giving up some of his power. It could be a historic change but some say the reforms don't go far enough.

Demonstrators praise Morocco's king
Demonstrators praise Morocco's king as they celebrate unveiled constitutional reformsImage: AP

Moroccans are voting in a referendum on a new constitution that would curb King Mohammed VI's near absolute powers in the north African nation.

The king's reform promises made some two weeks ago in Rabat has burnished his image and tempered the anger of the people, who just a short while ago seemed to be ready to take to the streets as their neighbors in Tunisia had done.

"The king has given up a lot of his power, and instead strengthened the role of the executive," said Lahcen Haddad, a political scientist in the capital. "The judiciary is basically independent, according to the new constitution, which is a big step towards democracy."

About 40,000 polling places have opened across the country to allow the more than 13 million eligible voters to cast ballots, state news agency Maghreb Arabe Press reported Friday.

For years, Morocco's 47-year-old King Mohammed VI has ruled the country with near limitless powers, thanks to authority enshrined in the current constitution, now 15 years old.

The referendum asks voters if they want to change the governing system into a constitutional monarchy.

Heading off trouble

It is widely believed that in announcing the reforms, the king wanted to keep the kind of turmoil seen in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt from spilling over his country's own borders.

Demonstration in Morocco
The Arab World revolts spilled over in Morocco earlier this yearImage: DW

He tasked legal experts with the drafting of a new constitutional document that would ease growing public anger and ward off popular protests over the lack of representation in government and a stagnant economy.

Under the new system, the king will cede some powers. Most importantly, the prime minister will be chosen from the largest party elected to parliament, who would take over as head of the government. Up to now, the king has simply chosen who he wants for the job.

The monarch would no longer be considered "holy," although he would continue to be "unimpeachable." The prime minister will gain the power to nominate and dismiss ministers and the language of the Berbers, Tamazight, will receive official status alongside Arabic.

Not enough

But to some people, the reforms do not go far enough.

Morocco's youth-based February 20 Movement, which has been vocal in its demands for far-reaching changes in the society, has said the new constitution has no legitimacy. They have encouraged people to boycott the vote.

"We are against this constitution because it was the king who chose the commission which drew it up!" said Zineb El Rhazoui, a movement activist. "The new constitution would be legitimate if the people had voted on the members of the commission. As it is, the new document just confirms the king's powers on all levels."

She said her group wants a king who governs, not one who rules.

Many opponents to the proposed new system look across the Mediterranean to Spain and its king, who plays only a representational role in the government.

Morocco's King Mohammed VI
Morocco's King Mohammed VI will see his powers curtailedImage: AP

In Morocco, even under a new constitution, the king would still chair cabinet meetings and be able to dissolve parliament, although not unilaterally as he does now. He would also be commander of the armed forces as well as the highest religious authority for Moroccan Muslims.

"We are demanding a democratic government. We want dignity for our people and a secular state where religion does not have the final word," said El Rhazoui.

Her group is also demanding equality between men and women. The new constitution does talk about equal rights, but they are qualified, she said.

"They are guaranteed only within the framework of our religion and there is no equality of the sexes in Islam."

But the February 20 movement has said is not interested in becoming a political party or exercising power itself. Instead, it wants to generate pressure for more far-reaching reforms.


But political scientist Haddad supports more incremental change and doesn't see a problem in apparent inconsistencies in the constitution.

"Religious freedom is guaranteed in the constitution although the state religion is Islam," he said. "I hope that if someone is persecuted because of his or her religion, the case will go to the courts and it will be decided whether or not the persecution was unconstitutional."

Protests for reform
Thousands of people marched in Rabat in April calling for reformsImage: DW

All the political parties in parliament, from the socialists to the nationalists to the moderate Islamic groups, have backed the reform move. But political parties are weak in Morocco due to the overwhelming power held by the king.

According to Thomas Schiller, a North Africa expert at the Konrad Adenauer Institute, the successful opening up of the country depends less on which powers the king concedes, but on changes in long-established attitudes.

"A change in this or that article or this or that legal formulation is not decisive," he said. "Rather, what is crucial is a transformation of the country's political culture."

What is needed is a culture in which parties demand their rights and create working democratic institutions. The monarchy and the king are still widely respected in Morocco and there is no widespread movement to do away with them. Therefore, experts doubt the king will be overthrown in an expression of public anger.

However, they warn that social unrest could result from other factors.

"It could become dangerous in Morocco if the country does not see real economic or social development in a positive direction," said Schiller.

There is a still a yawning gap between rich and poor and the countryside and the urban centers of the country. The high unemployment rate among young people also continues to be a potential flash point.

Experts say more democracy in Morocco will likely only bring lasting stability if it is accompanied by higher living standards and real social reform for its young and frustrated population.

Author: Diana Hodali/jam
Editor: Rob Mudge