Moroccans vote in referendum over limiting power of monarchy

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Moroccans voted yesterday on a new constitution that will limit the powers of King Mohammed VI in what could prove a critical test of whether the Arab Spring can successfully spawn genuine political reform.

The new reforms, which include appointing a prime minister from the largest party, are an effort by the near-absolute monarch to head off the kind of large-scale protests that have toppled rulers in Egypt and Tunisia and rattled leaders across the region.

Expectations have been dashed elsewhere in the region where the overthrow of authoritarian regimes has been slow to usher in hoped-for change.

Voters went to the polls at 40,000 polling booths across Morocco after a massive media campaign for a Yes vote in the referendum. Analysts said the key test would be whether turnout was high enough to give the vote political credibility. Moroccans are widely expected to vote Yes, but analysts expected a low turnout.

The tiny pro-democracy February 20 movement, which first mobilised dissent against the government via Facebook, says that the proposed reforms fall far short of their calls for a constitutional monarchy and have urged Moroccans to boycott the vote. Only 13 million of Morocco's 32 million people are eligible to vote, and as of 4pm local time, voter turnout stood at 48.1 per cent.

King Mohammed, who took power from his father in 1999, first announced the changes to the constitution in mid-June in response to the mass marches that have taken place weekly since the start of this year protesting against a lack of democracy, political corruption and economic woes.

The new constitution shifts powers to the political executive, but leaves many of the king's powers intact.

The king would appoint the prime minister from the party that garners the most votes in elections, a departure from previous policy, and he could no longer dissolve parliament unilaterally. Moreover, the new constitution establishes an independent judiciary, while awarding greater rights to women and the marginalised Berber communities, with the indigenous Berber tongue to become an official language alongside Arabic.

On the other hand, while the prime minister will take over as head of government, the king will remain the head of state, in overall charge of religion and the military, and any criticism of him in the media will still be forbidden.

But for some, it is a first step. "We say yes to the constitution, but how it turns out in practice, well that's another struggle," Saad Eddin al-Othmani, a senior official in the Islamist Development and Justice Party, told the Associated Press.

King Mohammed, who has largely refrained from using force against protesters, has come under little international pressure to introduce sweeping reform. In a region where the Arab Spring's democracy gains are looking increasingly fragile, even the Moroccan monarch's relatively small steps have won effusive backing from the West, analysts say.

In Egypt and Tunisia, protesters have not seen the kind of change many hoped for following the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Libya is mired in a protracted civil conflict, while many fear further upheaval if President Bashar al-Assad is deposed in Syria.

Addressing an audience in Lithuania this week, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned the Arab Spring could yet be undone. "There are new democracies fighting for life," she said.