x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Referendum backs king, but Morocco is still an exception

Morocco is only starting on the road to reform, and what's happening there would not translate well to other states; Morocco is not a country like the others. Still, change is change, and change is coming.

There is something disturbing about near-total unanimity, especially when it rears its head at the ballot box. For once, however, a 98.5 per cent favourable vote in a developing country was not necessarily a symptom of massive voting fraud. Morocco's new constitution, put to a referendum last Friday, was expected to get the people's approval by a sweeping margin, and it did.

In fact, any figure under 80 per cent would have come as a surprise. Most parties declared they would vote "yes" as soon as the reforms were announced in mid-June. Also, the February 20 Movement, a leaderless group of young pro-democracy activists who initiated protests for change, opted to boycott because the proposed reforms, they decided, were insufficient.

The group, which has loosely coordinated committees in various cities around the kingdom, took to the streets on Sunday to contest the interior minister's claim, made the day before, that preliminary figures showed a 73 per cent provisional turnout.

The protest was understandable. After all, the referendum was not totally free of dubious practices. For instance, a considerable number of voter registration cards were hand-delivered to citizens at their homes or at the polling stations. This means that a key part of a voter's national duty - which is to go out and get registered - was performed by local authorities, whose goal was to ensure high turnouts in their constituencies.

Banners inscribed with "Yes to the Constitution" were allowed to hang on facades and fences surrounding bus stations, even in the capital, while stickers carrying the same message decorated the rear windshields of taxis. Sure, these banners were representing various political parties, trade unions and civil society groups. But from the vantage point of the average citizen, the "Yes" message alone was obtrusive, with hardly any "No" banners in sight.

Then it emerged that imams had been told to outline the virtues of the proposed constitution in their Friday sermon. A religious weight was brought to bear on a political topic that was already difficult to debate given that King Mohammed VI is so popular among Moroccans.

"We vote yes, for our dear king, may God preserve him." This statement and more colourful variations were repeated by many Moroccan men and women on the street and at polling stations on referendum day. In a way, the vote was more of an occasion to renew allegiance to the king than an exercise in constitutional self-determination.

So does "the Moroccan exception" still hold? Despite everything, the answer leans towards a yes. By Arab countries' standards, Morocco still presents one of the best reform models of the year, warts and all. It takes guts to admit, for it is psychologically safer and rhetorically more chic to be ultra-sceptical.

This Moroccan model might be eclipsed by Tunisia and Egypt when they finally get their institutions back on track. But for the time being, the guardians of Morocco's so-called "quiet revolution" - the king's advisers, the ministers and the secret services - are managing with some awkward success to balance change and stability. Protesters can demonstrate and will not be beaten, but they will be contained; this is the post-referendum attitude.

Neither nations nor mindsets change at a snap of the fingers, but it should not take them centuries either. While abrupt transformation is counter-intuitive and potentially risky, gradual change that appeals to common sense can prove hypnotically slow. That is why it must be constantly watched, measured and critiqued by independent media, rights bodies, activists and ordinary citizens.

With a new constitution comes a new government. As parliamentary elections are just around the corner - likely to be held in October - the country's party constellation may be up for a makeover. Parties may finally cure themselves of inherited inhibitions and adopt a more determined platform, one that breaks away from the old doublespeak and the paranoia about what the palace might feel about this or that.

The official enactment of the new constitution was yesterday still pending the Moroccan diaspora vote results and the seal of the Constitutional Council. Although it will be approved eventually, the game is still not won for those who supported the proposal, nor is it lost for those who opposed it.

The public is generally impatient; if concrete changes in the separation of powers, public policy, justice and freedoms are not felt in the first few months following the appointment of Morocco's first "head of government", the hitherto demonised protesters will be sure to gain favour with the general public again. Conversely, if changes included in the new constitution start to trickle down from page to practice, the protest movement will gradually abate.

Not too long ago, Moroccans used to lower their voices when they talked politics, even in the privacy of their own homes. Today, they load vans with loudspeakers and head downtown to denounce poor governance, corruption and nepotism. The higher the people set that bar, the more sweeping the democratic transition.