Turnout key as Moroccans vote on king’s reforms

RABAT–Moroccans voted on Friday in a referendum on a revised constitution offered by King Mohammed to placate "Arab Spring" street protesters, with the "yes" camp tipped to win despite boycott calls by opponents.

The new charter explicitly grants the government executive powers, but retains the king at the helm of the army, religious authorities and the judiciary and still allows him to dissolve parliament, though not unilaterally as is the case now.

That falls far short of the demands of the "February 20" protest movement, which wants a parliamentary monarchy where the king's powers would be kept in check by elected lawmakers.

It wants Moroccans to shun the vote and stage more protests, though these have so far failed to attract the mass support of popular uprisings that toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt.

"A large 'yes' vote with a high abstention rate or spoiled ballots is not a great result, and the monarchy, Makhzen and (political) parties know it," said Lise Storm, senior lecturer in Middle East politics at the University of Exeter.

The Makhzen is the royal court seen by many Moroccans as a largely unaccountable and shadowy political elite.

The 47-year-old ruler 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.

But while his personal popularity is seen swinging many voters in favor of the reforms, the margin of victory could be eroded by resentment at what is seen as a wide disparity between rich and poor, and a sense of alienation from the political elite.

"I'm not voting because I couldn't get my voter card and to be totally honest I can'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.

Results of an online poll conducted by independent portal showed 53 percent of 43,800 participants saying they would boycott the referendum. The vast bulk of the rest said they would vote in favor, but such a low turnout would raise questions over the credibility of the exercise.

Results are due to be announced on Saturday.

The interior ministry has said some 13 million people have registered to vote — more than 6 million fewer than the 19.4 million Moroccans over 19 years old in a 2009 census.

Hamid Benchrifa, an analyst from the Social Development Agency, said the disparity may be due either to voters not updating their identity cards after changing address, or a simple lack of interest in politics.

Tens of thousands have protested since the king unveiled the proposals this month, saying they do not go far enough and that the referendum timing has not allowed Moroccans — almost half of whom are illiterate — the time to study them.

"How can I not vote when they gave me this?" said Youssef, a caretaker in an office building in Rabat, as he pulled out the campaign T-shirt of the camp backing the revisions.

The February 20 movement has brought together Islamists bent on setting up an Islamic caliphate and secular left-wing activists focusing on what they see as rising levels of corruption.

They say they will continue their common fight for a system of parliamentary monarchy and a sharper reduction in the powers of the king.

"We reject what has been offered," said Najib Chawki, one of the coordinators of a movement which has no formal leadership.

"It still leaves a sole player in the field."

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