RABAT // More than 73 per cent of Morocco's registered voters went to polls, with 98.5 of those who voted on Friday supporting the new constitution, the interior minister Taieb Cherqaoui said yesterday. Results were still awaited from Moroccans residing abroad.
King Mohammed VI has said that the new constitution expands the role of elected government. In March, the king announced planned reforms and named a commission to draft a new constitution. That constitution was unveiled on June 17, with the referendum scheduled for a fortnight later.
Under the new constitution, the prime minister must come from the winning party in elections and has a greater say in forming the cabinet. King Mohammed is called on to consult more with government before making executive decisions, while parliament can legislate more broadly.
Opponents, however, maintain that its reforms are cosmetic and have vowed to keep pushing for deeper change.
They say that the new constitution leaves the king's power as head of state fundamentally intact, while granting him direct control of security, military, religious and judicial affairs, and allowing him to issue decrees.
With the constitution widely expected to pass, all eyes were fixed on voter turnout, seen as crucial to underlining a referendum victory.
"For us, the announced voter turnout doesn't reflect reality," said Ali Benddine, deputy coordinator of the Coalition for Parliamentary Monarchy, a grouping of political parties, trade unions and independent activists.
Based on accounts it says come from dozens of polling station chiefs, the coalition estimates maximum voter turnout at 20 per cent in cities and 40 per cent in the countryside, Mr Benddine said. "Some station chiefs even told us they were instructed to send blank tally sheets to the interior ministry."
Those claims were dismissed by Morocco's communication minister, Khalid Naciri, who insisted that Friday's vote was clean.
Supporters of the new constitution have hailed what they describe as a smashing victory. Pro-government newspapers yesterday trumpeted the referendum in headlines such as "The Moroccan people have their say" (L'Opinion).
"A percentage of over 90 per cent is good," said Samir Ennouiti, 25, a snake-charmer in the heartland city of Marrakech, referring to the announced "yes" vote. "It means that almost all Moroccans agree."
Support for the new constitution is most likely strongest among rural, uneducated and older voters, said Michael Willis, professor of Moroccan and Mediterranean studies at Oxford University. "That's who voted in the last legislative elections in 2007, while the young and educated did not."
The official "yes" vote accounts for 9.65 million people - a majority of registered voters but only around half of Morocco's voting-age population, said Nizar Bennamate, 25, a co-founder of the February 20 protest movement.
"That leaves a large segment of the population who are not necessarily interested in the new constitution," Mr Bennamate said.
For Mr Bennamate, such calculations offer grounds for keeping up pressure in Moroccan streets.
Mr Bennamate said that the new constitution "leaves many problems unsolved," citing what February 20 considers are outstanding demands for separation of powers, the release of alleged political prisoners and measures to fight corruption.
The February 20 movement materialised via Facebook among mainly young Moroccans inspired by Tunisia's revolution, who organised demonstrations condemning corruption.
Despite a strong start, the movement has struggled to muster large numbers in recent weeks.
"Two weeks is not enough time for debate on so fundamental a document," Mr Bennamate said. The February 20 movement had urged Moroccans to boycott the referendum and has called for marches this evening.
"All Moroccans wanted change, but people have different ways of expressing it, " said Hassan Bouqdir, a 29 year-old juice vendor in Marrakech. "As I see it, everything will be all right with the new constitution eventually."
According to Mr Willis, the Oxford professor, wiggle room may lie somewhere in the middle for political parties provided that they are willing to debate King Mohammed once the new rules are in place. "However, I don't see parties rising to the challenge," he said.
"The new constitution marks a political phase," said Abdelillah Benkirane, secretary-general of the Islamist opposition Justice and Development party, which supported the new constitution. "Strong parties can make use of it, while weak parties will not."
According to Mr Naciri, the new constitution will be implemented at an unspecified date through consensus among political parties. For now, Moroccans are awaiting legislative elections expected in early autumn.
"Those elections are the key thing watch: whether Moroccans - especially the young and educated - will turn out to vote," Mr Willis said. "The referendum was always a foregone conclusion."
* With additional reporting by Achraf el Bahi in Marrakech