x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Moroccans vote on new constitution proposed by King Mohammed VI

Major political parties have maintained a drumbeat of support for the proposed constitution.

Moroccans post their ballots at a voting station in Sale on Friday.
Moroccans post their ballots at a voting station in Sale on Friday.

Rabat and Ben Guerir, Morocco // Two key results are expected today from a referendum in Morocco on a proposed new constitution: how many people voted yes, and how many voted at all.

While the proposed constitution was expected to pass as Moroccans voted yesterday, high turnout needed to bolster a victory remained in question.

King Mohammed VI has said that the proposed constitution strengthens democracy, while opponents maintain that its reforms are cosmetic. The February 20 protest movement had called for a referendum boycott.

"It's too early to say how many people will boycott," said Montasser Drissi, 19, a co-founder of February 20, speaking yesterday afternoon. "But when we distribute tracts, the response is positive."

According to Mr Drissi, the movement is planning demonstrations tomorrow evening. February 20 has struggled increasingly to muster large protests, while constitution supporters have mounted counter-demonstrations, in several cases hurling eggs and stones.

Major political parties have maintained a drumbeat of support for the proposed constitution, fuelled by billions of Moroccan dirhams disbursed by the government to the top 35 parties in 2007 legislative elections.

State and pro-government media have urged Moroccans to the polls. News-stands yesterday were bristling with headlines such as "Let's vote in huge numbers!" (Al Bayane) and "Vote Yes: a new step toward modernity" (Aujourd'hui Le Maroc).

In the town of Ben Guerir, in Morocco's dry central plain, the first vote at a polling station in Al Haj Diouri Primary School - a "yes" - was cast by Mohammed Bouoda, 44, a public sector accountant. For Mr Bouoda, the proposed constitution provides for separation of powers while granting official status to Morocco's minority Amazigh language. "All of this is quite good," he said.

Elsewhere in Ben Guerir, two vans packed with singing and ululating voters rolled up to Green March Primary School, where polling stations had been set up.

Opponents of the proposed constitution have voiced fears that authorities would seek to pack polling stations, a scenario dismissed by officials in Ben Guerir.

"Some voters live in villages far away, so locals arrange transport among themselves," said a Ben Guerir official speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to media.

Meanwhile in the capital, Rabat, voting appeared to start slowly, with mainly middle-aged and older voters plodding into polling stations.

"I'm voting yes, because I think the new constitution will bring more rights to workers like me," said Mohamed Zarrouki, an auto mechanic in the working-class quarter of Yacoub el Mansour. Mr Zarrouki ambled into the Halima Saadiya High School. Upstairs, paper ballots were stacked in the polling stations, colour-coded for the illiterate: white for yes, blue for no.

Opponents of the proposed constitution say that high illiteracy in Morocco has prevented some voters from understanding the stakes of the referendum, held just two weeks after the document was made public.

For some voters, however, illiteracy does not pose a problem. "Constitution? I'm illiterate and I don't know what it means. We vote for our king's sake," said Aziza Selwani, 40, a folk music performer in Ben Guerir. "Thanks to the king's attention, we're doing better for ourselves. There's more security and better infrastructure."

That view was echoed by Fatima, an illiterate housewife in a Yacoub el Mansour shantytown who declined to give her surname. "The king wants us to vote yes, and that's good enough for me."

Fatima leaned in the doorway of her breeze-block home, pushing back the green curtain that served as a door. "What I really want is to get out of this place, and into a real house," she said.

At that moment, Fatima's neighbour, a vegetable seller named Habib Mansour, came up the alley. Like Fatima, Mr Mansour planned to vote for the proposed constitution. "For me, the goal is more democracy," he said. "I see the new constitution giving us a government that actually governs, while the king keeps an eye on things."

Under the proposed constitution, the prime minister must be chosen from the party that comes first in elections, and has a larger role in forming a cabinet. The king is called to consult more with government before making executive decisions, and parliament can legislate more broadly.

However, opponents of the proposed constitution say that King Mohammed's power would remain fundamentally intact as head of state, while the document grants him direct control of military, security, judicial and religious affairs.

At a chic cafe across Rabat from Yacoub el Mansour, that debate elicited varying levels of interest around a table of students and young professionals. "I'm Amazigh, and the proposed constitution makes my language official," said Houda, 24, a university law student. "If I was in my hometown where I'm registered, I'd vote for it." Houda's friend Nihal, 20, a clothing designer, said: "I support the king but I'm not voting. I'm not interested in politics. I have my family, my career, and that's what matters."