Morocco Sidesteps Democratic Reform


July began with Morocco's referendum on its new constitution. Only a week later, the country witnessed rallies of thousands in several cities asking for greater political reform. The referendum, the first of King Mohamed VI's era, came after months of protests led by the youth-based February 20 Movement. The international community, particularly the U.S. and the EU, welcomed the reforms and praised the king for the advance towards democracy.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that the U.S. supports “Moroccan ... leaders in their efforts to strengthen the rule of law, raise human rights standards, promote good governance, and work toward long-term democratic reform.” The EU, via a joint statement from High Representative Catherine Ashton and Commissioner Stefan Füle, stated the “reforms include important commitments to enhancing democracy and respect for human rights; strengthening separation of powers ... and enhancing gender equality.”

However, the process that led to the new constitution was far from exemplary, as the February 20 Movement called for a boycott of the referendum. First, the king already delivered the “guidelines” for the new constitution in a speech on March 9. Second, the two established bodies to work on the document — a commission to draft the text and a consultative body working as liaison between the commission and political parties — were both headed by the king’s close advisers. Third, even though all parties in the government and some of the opposition presented suggestions, no debate was allowed and the final draft was only presented one day before the referendum, which left no time for amendments before voting. Additionally, the draft was modified by the authorities the evening before the referendum without informing citizens of the last minute changes.

Overall, the promised “consultative process” to create a new constitution was, in practice, a close-door palace-led process.

For that reason, the king sought a high percentage of votes to legitimize the document. A massive media operation was set up; during 30 days of campaign, Morocco’s five television channels and radio stations dedicated a total of 200 hours, seven minutes, and 44 seconds to promote the referendum. Within this time, the February 20 Movement was only given five and a half hours to express its opinion. The three small parties that opposed the proposed reforms received similar treatment. Additionally, to obtain the public support, the Moroccan establishment turned to religious authorities a week before the voting, and had them encourage a “yes" vote before that Friday’s prayer.

Ultimately, the new constitution received the approval of 98.5% of voters, with a turnout of 73.4%. These numbers appear astonishingly high compared to those of the last parliamentary elections in 2007, when only 37% of registered voters participated. However, the recent statistics only consider registered voters — not the total population with the right to vote.

Indeed, the new constitution introduces some changes which could limit the king’s power. However, “strategic decisions” are still under his authority, and the new constitution is unclear on which decisions fall under this label. Thus, changes will be subject to the way the document is implemented.

Given the way the constitution was drafted, there is little hope for a true constitutional monarchy in Morocco. Thousands of people demonstrating in Rabat two days after the referendum, along with similar activities in other cities only a week later, indicate that Moroccans recognize this. The U.S. and EU were probably hoping for Morocco’s stability in supporting the king’s proposed reforms. However, as the demonstration proved, stability cannot be gained from dubious democratic processes, much less true democratic advance.

Photo Credit: AnnieGreenSprings