x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Morocco's plan for reforms leaves the king's power intact

Morocco's King Mohammed VI wil surely win acceptance of his new constitution in the referendum planned for July 1. The reforms do have some meaning, but this is far from full electoral democracy.

After three months of secret negotiations and a public process of consultation with an appointed committee of experts, Morocco's King Mohammed VI proposed a new constitution on Friday.

With this constitution, Morocco appears to have outpaced the reform processes of other Arab states, with considerable speed and remarkable stability, and without the mass protests and regime violence that have marked the Arab Spring elsewhere. In addition, the kingdom squares the circle: the constitutional "pact" to be voted upon in a popular referendum on July 1 will, if adopted, strip the king of some of his main powers.

Yet these proposals were spearheaded by the king himself. Is the king the country's first revolutionary?

Some clarifications: the proposed constitution includes many of the core demands of the political opposition over the last 12 years, yet guarantees the king a strong position of power. It may therefore fail to calm the pro-democracy February 20 movement.

Still, after two decades of regular and free elections to Morocco's legislative body, the prime minister will be constitutionally elected by indirect, universal suffrage. The head of a political party that obtains a simple majority in the 325 member lower house will be entitled to the premiership - a practice already experimented with in 1997 and 2007. The council of government will determine the general policy of the country, without the presence of the king.

The prime minister will also be able to dissolve the parliament. In addition, the separation of powers will be reinforced. The minister of justice, formerly the representative of the king, will no longer chair the council of magistrates, thereby limiting the royal court's interference in juridical matters.

A new constitutional court will become accessible to Moroccan citizens. The Berber language will become an official language along with Arabic. Gender equality will become one of the main points of the liberal constitution that devotes its first chapter to human rights. The state is obliged to realise gender equality in all areas, and a special institution is created to achieve this.

On the other hand, the king remains a powerful figure as "Commander of the Faithful". His speeches are not to be debated, and he has power to declare a state of emergency, reinforced by his position as supreme commander of the armed forces. As all laws and most senior appointments need to be confirmed by him, he has effective veto power. He also heads a council of ministers, an institution parallel to the council of government.

This means that his core competency of arbiter among political forces will be strengthened. The official justification for the continuing centralisation of power is that the liberal principles of the constitution must be protected - and the only credible guarantor is the king.

The referendum will doubtless give this top-down constitution popular support, marginalising the February 20 movement. Yet this constitution won't change the political practices that have evolved over the last decade, and it includes many contradictions that make the king's claim to be proposing democracy with a Moroccan touch unconvincing.

What Moroccans refer to as the makhzen - the king's advisers and elite - has become such a strong political-economic force that the elected leaders do not dare to oppose any of the king's initiatives. The restrictions on the freedom of speech as it relates to the king cements this phenomenon.

The king's position as religious and military leader leaves the door open to abuse in any emergency. While that may not happen under this king, this is not constitutionalism as understood in liberal democracies.

Morocco's past experiment with democratic practices has revealed two other considerations: first, how can anyone ensure that the country's virulent Islamist opposition is not imposing its values and beliefs on a fairly secularised, urban society and elite? Second, how can we be sure the elected, political class does not abuse its power and become a self-serving, ineffective, patriarchal class that loses legitimacy in the eyes of the people? After all, the last electoral participation rate was with less than 40 per cent, a political disaster.

The king, with all his religious and traditional legitimacy, is in effect proposing himself as an intermediary. As in the 55 years since independence, two argument remain: first, without a strong king, the political forces would tear themselves to pieces. Second, the king represents the supreme interests of the Moroccan umma, creating an organic link between state and society.

The new constitution reflects little but business as usual. It reaffirms the importance of the king, while it confirms that the leader of the party with a majority will become prime minister. This will not change the fact that no party has ever been able to win an absolute majority, because of electoral engineering and royal interference, such as the 2008 creation of the king's Authenticity and Modernity Party.

The referendum will approve the constitution with a large majority, not least because the king has put all his forces behind it, including in his televised address to the Moroccan people last Friday. It is an extremely important public relations campaign, but it fails to hide the lack of real changes that the protest movement is calling for. Not surprisingly, the 20 February movement continued its protests.


James N Sater is an associate professor in the Department of International Studies at the American University of Sharjah