Cairo - As Moroccans head to the polls to vote in a referendum on reforms offered by King Mohammed VI in the wake of the Arab Spring, the debate continues as to whether the proposed changes are merely cosmetic or will pave the way for a viable democracy.
Millions of Moroccans head to the polls Jul. 1 to vote on a new proposed constitution, which was last amended in 1999 when the Arab world’s longest-standing dynasty seized power.
In an attempt to stifle the growing wave of democratic uprisings sweeping the Arab world from taking root in Morocco, the king appointed a commission to draft a new constitution in March, after facing the country’s largest pro-democracy protests in decades.
Among the proposed changes unveiled earlier this month is that the role of parliament would be strengthened with the task of providing oversight in matters relating to nationality, drafting and proposing laws as well as the ability to appoint interior ministry representatives.
A president, chosen from the largest party elected to parliament, would head the government and be granted authority to dissolve the lower house of parliament - which was a right formerly allotted to the king.
In addition, gender equality, increased personal freedom, an independent judiciary and investigations of corrupt officials have also been included in the draft constitution.
"I’m very impressed with the reform package because Morocco is very different than the republican regimes - either those where the leadership has been forced to resign like in Tunisia and Egypt, or those that have resisted ferociously like Libya, Yemen and Syria," Veteran Middle East journalist and professor emeritus at the American University in Cairo, Abdallah Schleifer, told IPS.
"The new reforms will turn Morocco into a constitutional monarchy because it will have an elected parliament with broad powers, and a monarchy limited by a new constitution much like that of the European democracies," Schleifer said. "Regionally, Morocco is taking the lead because these reforms are coming from the centre of power, whereas in countries like Egypt an uprising forced the army to make a decision and inspired a soft coup d’état."
Although several of the country’s largest political parties - including the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP), the conservative Istiqlal Party and the Islamist Justice and Development Party - have urged their supporters to overwhelmingly support the reform, opposition groups like the youth-based February 20 movement, that have led street protests, are opting to boycott the vote due to the referendum being undemocratic.
"Despite the fact that the commission included highly respected personalities, professors, law experts, sociologists and invited all the political parties, trade unions, components of civil society and human right groups to offer suggestions, the February 20 movement along with three leftist groups, the banned Islamic Justice and Charity Party and the Unified Socialist Party, decided to boycott the referendum on grounds that the suggested draft is not made up by an elected commission, but rather by people nominated by the king," Moroccan journalist, Abdellah Aoussar told IPS.
"The movement continues to organise marches and is engaging in door-to-door campaigns to convince people to join their boycott, since they believe that a low participation in the referendum will question the credibility of the new constitution," Aoussar said.
Under the new constitution, the king retains the right to grant amnesties, to appoint judges and approve Cabinet members, as well as authority over the security apparatus and the ability to overrule or dissolve parliament, which analysts say allows the king to continue calling the shots behind the scenes.
"Language semantics in this new constitution gives the illusion that the executive will gain more power. For example, by replacing the title of ‘Prime Minister’ with the ‘President of the Government’ sounds as if he is calling the shots but at the end of the day he doesn’t," Arezki Daoud, publisher and editor of the ‘North African Journal’, said in an interview with IPS.
"The proposed changes are basically cosmetic because Article 19, which enshrines the guns of the king and grants him the title of Commander of the Faithful - meaning that he will become a Pope with power, allows him to retain his powers via a proxy because all new laws and appointments must have royal approval," Daoud said.
Despite continued contention by opponents that say the reforms fail to meet the demands of establishing a parliamentary monarchy, releasing all political prisoners and granting dignity, social justice and freedom to the nearly 30 million citizens of Morocco, the new constitution is expected to pass with widespread public support.
"Morocco has a long history of free elections that has allowed opposition parties to come to power - which adds legitimacy to the monarchy," says Schleifer. "I think the king’s response is a wise and judicious one and will be respected by the majority of the country resulting in the approval of the new reforms."