Q&A: Morocco’s referendum on reform
After pro-reform protests broke out across Morocco on 20 February – echoing those in Tunisia and Egypt, the country’s monarch went on TV in March to announce “comprehensive constitutional reform”.
But his proposals have been rejected by the youth-based February 20 Movement, which says that the king’s reforms do not go far enough.
How did popular demand for reform arise?
Inspired by popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, on 20 February, tens of thousands of Moroccans took part in protests in Casablanca, Rabat and other towns calling for political and social reform.
As protests continued, King Mohammed VI addressed the nation by TV on 9 March and announced “comprehensive constitutional reform”, which would provide “expanded individual and collective liberties and the reinforcement of human rights”. He set up a commission to advise on constitutional changes.
Despite that, nationwide protests on 20 March were even larger and were followed by clashes between police and protesters.
On 9 June, the commission announced that it would recommend a shift of powers from the king to the prime minister, the creation of an independent judiciary and the recognition of Berber as an official language, alongside Arabic.
King Mohammed, a few days later, said he would curb his powers and work to establish a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament. The public, he said, would get to vote on these proposals in a referendum on 1 July.
Where does King Mohammed stand on political reform?
When he became king in 1999, Mohammed VI, then 35, pledged a more open politics than had been the case under his father. Fighting poverty has been an expressed priority, and on social issues he has been seen as a reformer.
For example, in 2004, Morocco adopted a new family code granting women greater rights despite opposition from Islamist conservatives. And during his reign Morocco has invested heavily in infrastructure.
But pro-reform protesters, as well as human rights groups, argue that his changes have not gone far enough. Newspapers are not allowed to criticise the monarchy. The justice system, tainted by allegations of torture, is not seen as independent.
What reforms has the king proposed now?
The key reforms are:
- The king will select a prime minister from the party that wins the most seats in parliament. At present, the king can make anyone prime minister.
- A reference to the king as “sacred” in the constitution will be removed, though he will remain “inviolable”.
- The prime minister will be the head of government, not the king, and will gain the power to dissolve the lower house of parliament.
- The prime minister will preside over the Government Council, which will prepare policy before presenting it to the cabinet.
- Parliament will have more oversight of civil rights, electoral and nationality issues.
- Women will be guaranteed “civic and social” equality with men. Previously, only “political” equality was guaranteed.
- The Berber language will become an official state language along with Arabic.
But King Mohammed also said he would keep total control of Morocco’s security and foreign policy, as well as matters of religion.
How have the public and political parties responded?
Morocco has seen weekly demonstrations involving tens of thousands of people both for and against the reforms. In Casablanca and Rabat there have been violent clashes between pro-government and pro-reform activists.
The latter protest that the draft reforms leave the king’s absolute powers intact and he would continue as the top religious figure and head of the army. They complain that Morocco’s 400-year-old dynasty has a long history of enacting superficial reforms.
The king’s plan, the February 20 Movement says, “does not respond to our demands for a true separation of powers”. They are calling for constitutional changes drawn up by a democratically elected committee instead.
The Islamist Justice and Charity group has also rejected the proposals.
Official political parties have, however, backed the reforms and the government has launched a media campaign in support of the new constitution.
Morocco’s official news agency reported that demonstrations supporting the new constitution had taken place “everywhere” around the country. Like other official media bodies, the agency did not cover demonstrations against the proposals.
Meanwhile, the opposition Unified Socialist Party has accused the authorities of misusing mosques in an “unethical” way through Friday sermons calling on people to vote in favour of the reforms. The party urged the authorities to keep religion and mosques out of politics.
What has the international community said about the referendum?
Welcoming King Mohammed’s reforms, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that he hopes all sides of the debate will participate peacefully in the process.
The Arab League’s outgoing secretary general, Amr Moussa, praised the measures as “an important step for securing the pillars of democracy”.
The European Union’s executive also had positive words for King Mohammed’s proposals.
“It is a significant step and signals a clear commitment to democracy and respect for human rights,” EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele said in a joint statement.
In Washington, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton termed King Mohammed’s reform proposals a “model for others in the region” and said they held great promise for Moroccans.