Poll boost may be short-lived for Morocco king

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Moroccan voters’ endorsement of a new constitution may provide only a short-term boost for King Mohammed if concrete change is not delivered to silence a growing protest movement.

The new constitution, drafted by a royal-appointed committee, retains much of the king’s current power and was endorsed last week by 98.5 percent of the 9.7 million Moroccans who voted.

Opponents point out that more than 10 million eligible voters stayed away from the polling statins, either because of a boycott or lack of interest.
“The referendum has certainly yielded a symbolic victory for the king, even temporarily,” said Jean-Baptiste Gallopin of London-based Control Risks Group.
“The results show that the Moroccan population is deeply divided on the current situation.”

King Mohammed, 47, has committed to hand over some of his powers to elected officials after a referendum viewed in other Arab monarchies as a test case on whether reform can hold back the wave of “Arab Spring” uprisings sweeping the region.

While it explicitly reinforces the powers of both the government and parliament, the charter gives the king the right to veto any strategic decisions and powers that supersede the government in security and military matters, and the judiciary.

Thousands of people responded on Sunday to another call for protest by the “February 20” opposition movement, which was inspired by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and is pushing for greater reform in a country with moribund political parties, high illiteracy and wide income gaps.
“The referendum is actually a trap for the state,” said Najib Chawki, a Rabat-based activist with the group. “It will not be able to implement what the new constitution brings, just as it had not been able to do so with previous constitutions.”

The opposition will continue its almost weekly protests for a separation of powers and a crackdown on graft, Chawki said.
“February 20”, named after the date of its first protest, is a leaderless and loose national network that has managed to cobble together an unlikely alliance of Islamists and secular leftists around demands for a parliamentary monarchy.

Its call for a boycott of the referendum were echoed by one of Morocco’s biggest trade unions, the Democratic Labour Confederation (CDT), the banned Justice and Spirituality Islamist group and three small left-wing parties.

While it has not garnered the massive support seen in Egypt and Tunisia, the opposition has produced Morocco’s biggest anti-government protests in decades, impressive in a country where activism has focused on social issues.

Morocco’s social woes are even worse than Tunisia’s: nearly a third of those under 35 are jobless and millions more are stuck in poverty without access to basic public services.

The success of the new constitution will depend on its ability to address social and economic problems, Abdellah Saaf, a member of the committee that drafted the new charter, wrote in a recent column in French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur.
“Pressure by protests may continue to spread” and the key challenge for Moroccan authorities, he said, was to avoid violence and delays in implementing elements of the new charter.

The palace has so far managed to contain the opposition by offering cosmetic political changes and using its strong political, financial and media influence, Gallopin said.

That could eventually change if the movement were to win broader support or if the palace made the major blunder of using brutality to suppress the protests, he said.

Critics admit the king’s popularity helped rally wide support for his reform plan. Yet they also bemoan the state’s recourse to the clergy and the media to portray the referendum as a vote for or against the monarchy.

Like preceding charters, the referendum was drawn up under the monarchy’s watch and may take a long time to implement.

The 1962 constitution authorised strikes but subjected their organisation to a framework law that still has not been published. The 1996 constitution introduced a Social and Economic Council which took 15 years to be created.
“The constitution did not clarify the terms of the catholic marriage between power and money,” said Ali Anozla, editor of independent Lakome.com, the country’s biggest news portal.
“This is a problem in a country where the king is the country’s top banker, insurer, farmer and is also a telecoms player.”