Moroccan voters approve constitutional changes

The changes, seeking to calm unrest, will curb some powers of King Mohammed VI, but he will remain in charge of security forces and of appointing the president. Some activists reject the changes as far short of a modern constitutional monarchy.

Voters in Morocco approved constitutional changes to curb the powers of the country‘s 4-century-old monarchy, voting “yes” in a closely watched referendum Friday that was seen as an attempt to end months of protests demanding democratic reforms.

Officials announced that that more than 98% of those who voted in the referendum supported the measure, which broadens the powers of the country’s elected politicians, grants the judiciary more independence and gives official status to the Amazigh language of the country’s ethnic Berber population.

Many pro-democracy activists had urged a boycott of the referendum, saying the changes fell far short of their demands to transform the North African country into a modern constitutional monarchy. On social networking websites, they described the changes as “window dressing” meant to appease Western governments, cloak the king’s power and drain the passion from calls for reform. The near-unanimous result is sure to raise charges of vote-rigging from them.

Under the new constitution, King Mohammed VI will retain power over the security forces and religious institutions. He also will hand-pick the country’s president from among the leaders of the party that wins elections.

The democratic activists criticized a massive campaign by broadcasters, private firms and civil society groups allied with the king that urged Moroccans to back the changes.

“There was a lot of communication about it,” said Layal Rhanem, a journalist in Casablanca, the country’s commercial center. “Every NGO and company said they were saying ‘yes’ to the new constitution. The way it happened was strange.”

The country’s traditional opposition groups had praised the reforms, announced by the king in a June 17 televised address, and urged their supporters to vote “yes.”

The United States, European Union and United Nations also supported the changes in Morocco, which has strong ties to the West, as a step in the right direction.

About 72.5% of the 13.1 million eligible voters showed up at the polls, Associated Press reported. Morocco’s official news agency quoted an Interior Ministry official as saying that “no abnormal events or incidents” occurred, despite minor claims of voter fraud and intimidation by opposition activists urging the boycott.

Morocco’s protests have been driven by youths demanding a greater say over their future in a country dominated by a long-entrenched political and economic elite. Known as the Feb. 20 Movement, a loosely organized collection of youth-led groups, they have called for reform, not revolution, with few seeking an end to the monarchy.

The nation of 32 million suffers from severe unemployment, especially among the young, as well as a high rate of illiteracy and perceptions of a widening gap between haves and have-nots.

The 47-year-old king has significantly improved the country’s once-abysmal human rights record, but his regime has been criticized for using counter-terrorism laws to indefinitely jail Islamic activists and sometimes subject them to torture.

The question now is whether the referendum has lanced the pressure for reform, or whether activists can sustain the protest movement.

“I don’t think the protests will end, because those people behind the protests decided to boycott the referendum,” Rhanem said. “They made their choice.”

( / 02.07.2011)

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