Morocco says 98 percent voted ‘yes’ for new constitution

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A new constitution that Morocco’s King Mohammed VI has championed as an answer to demands for greater freedoms—but that protesters say will still leave the monarch firmly in control— was approved by 98 percent of voters in a referendum Friday, with 94 percent of polling stations reporting, the interior minister said early Saturday.

Interior Minister Taib Cherkaoui said voter turnout had been 72.65 percent in the 94 percent of stations reporting from the referendum, called by the king after he faced pro-democracy protests inspired by uprisings throughout the Arab world.

“The referendum went ahead in a normal atmosphere, and showed the degree of interaction between the people and the content of the constitutional project,” he said.

In a clear bid to show the vote was supported by the young, Mr. Cherkaoui also noted that 30 percent of voters were under the age of 35.

The charter explicitly grants executive powers to the government but retains the king at the helm of the cabinet, army, religious authorities and the judiciary.

With a turnout put at nearly 73 percent, the result will be seen as a vote of confidence in the leader of the Arab world’s longest-serving dynasty. It will be closely scrutinized by Gulf Arab monarchies that have so far deflected domestic reform calls.

“We knew right from the start that the referendum will be in favor of the reform, but not necessarily for good reasons,” said Ouidad Melhaf, an activist within the so-called “February 20” street protest movement.

“Widespread poverty, illiteracy and fear of the state played a key role in the vote’s outcome,” she said, saying that the movement would re-launch its regular protests on Sunday.

The new constitution preserves a range of privileges for the monarch, such as his right to dissolve parliament -- although not unilaterally as is the case now.

It falls far short of the demands of the protest movement, a mix of Islamists and secular left-wingers who want a parliamentary monarchy where the king’s powers would be kept in check by elected lawmakers.

The movement has failed to attract the mass support of popular uprisings that toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt, and the fact that many Moroccans snubbed its call to boycott the vote could be a further blow to its credibility.

“I voted ‘yes’ because we have to obey the Commander of the Faithful,” retired agriculture ministry engineer Samira Denguir said in the middle-class Hassan suburb of the capital Rabat, referring to the king’s religious role.

“I’m not voting because I couldn’t get my voter card and to be totally honest I couldn’t care less. If they really mean good they would have done it years ago,” said market trader Younes Driouki, 29, heading to the beach with his surfboard.

A staunch Western ally, Morocco has stepped up cooperation against terrorism and illegal migration, notably with the European Union which is keen to avoid the spread of Islamic militancy along its southern shores.

The 47-year-old king has had some success in repairing the legacy of human right abuses, high illiteracy and poverty he inherited after his late father’s 38-year rule ended in 1999 with the death of King Hassan II. Yet critics say there remains a wide disparity between rich and poor, and complain of human rights and rule of law failings.

(Mustapha Ajbaili, a senior editor at Al Arabiya English, can be reached at Mustapha.ajbaili@mbc.net)