x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

When Moroccans vote today, turnout is as crucial as the result

Supporters of the proposed new constitution in Morocco are hoping for high voter turnout to underpin the document¿s widely expected approval in today¿s poll. A low turnout could offer opponents an opening to push for deeper change.

RABAT // In polling stations across Morocco today, Moroccans will be asked to say yes or no to a proposed new constitution. The key question, however, is how many will turn up to vote.

King Mohammed VI says the proposed constitution strengthens democracy, while opponents say that its reforms are cosmetic. The youth-driven February 20 protest movement has called for a boycott of the referendum.

Supporters of the proposed constitution are hoping for high voter turnout to underpin the document's widely expected approval in today's poll. A low turnout could offer opponents an opening to push for deeper change.

Foreign observers, meanwhile, will be watching to see whether King Mohammed, who initiated the new constitution, will outpace protests that have swept across the Arab world this year.

"The king of Morocco has gone farther than any Arab leader in getting ahead of the avalanche," said Marina Ottaway, the head of the Middle East programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think tank.

A solid victory, she said, could inspire a similar initiative in Jordan, which like Morocco, is a pro-western Sunni monarchy swept up in the region's protests.

The protests reached Morocco in February when mainly youthful demonstrators inspired by Tunisia's revolution organised massive gatherings to condemn corruption and call for limits to King Mohammed's power. In March the king proposed reforms and appointed a commission to draft the proposed constitution.

Under the proposed constitution, the prime minister must come from the winning party in elections and would have a greater role in choosing the cabinet. Parliament would be empowered to legislate on a wider range of issues.

"The text does allow for curbing the king's power because it removes him from the day-to-day running of the country," Mrs Ottaway said. "But if political parties keep deferring to the king for everything, there will be no democratic advances."

Opponents say that the proposed constitution largely preserves King Mohammed's power, maintaining him as head of state and granting him direct control over military, security and religious affairs. The king would also head the Supreme Council of Justice and be able to issue decrees.

"Above all, we'll have the same elite and the same establishment parties," said Fouad Abdelmoumni, a business consultant and member of the Coalition for Parliamentary Monarchy, a grouping of political parties, trade unions and activists launched in May.

Leading parties have mobilised to back the proposed constitution, aided by billions of Moroccan dirhams disbursed by the government to the top 35 parties in 2007 legislative elections, according to Morocco's TelQuel magazine.

State and pro-government media have launched a vigorous vote drive, with exhortations in newspapers and radio spots urging "brother Moroccan, sister Moroccan, vote for your future, for your children and your children's children".

For Mr Abdelmoumni, that vote-drive amounts to state partiality, while the fortnight since the proposed constitution was unveiled has not allowed time for public debate.

Those claims were dismissed by Khalid Naciri, Morocco's communication minister. He said debate kicked off in March, while authorities have refrained from penalising the February 20 movement's boycott call despite a law against such campaigns.

"For us, the problem is that society is relatively disaffected with voting," Mr Naciri said, citing the 37 per cent voter turnout in the last legislative elections in 2007. The government expects turnout for today's referendum to exceed 50 per cent, he said.

Low turnout, on the other hand, could help the February 20 movement regain lost steam,  Mrs Ottaway said. Protests have dwindled in recent weeks, while royalists have mounted counter-demonstrations supporting the proposed constitution.

While the constitution is widely expected to pass, "its flaws will become apparent in the future", said Hassan Akrouid, 24, a February 20 organiser in the capital.

Protests leaders have vowed to maintain pressure in Moroccan streets. But King Mohammed's widespread popularity and political acumen present a stiff challenge in the battle for public support, Mrs Ottaway said.

"The king and his advisers are extremely capable politicians, always able to outmanoeuvre everyone around them," she said. "It may well be that they'll pull it off again."