Moroccans overwhelmingly back new constitution

Moroccans overwhelmingly back new constitution

Moroccans on Friday overwhelmingly approved a new constitution curbing the powers of King Mohammed VI, Interior Minister Taieb Cherkaoui announced overnight, DPA reported.

Nearly 98.5 per cent of voters backed the reform in a referendum, according to preliminary results given by the minister.

Under the constitutional reforms, the monarch will no longer be able to freely choose the prime minister, but will be obliged to appoint a person from the biggest party. He will no longer be able to choose the defence, interior, foreign and religious affairs ministers without consulting the prime minister, or fire ministers without the premier's consent.

The relatively high voter turnout - 72 per cent - was also seen as a victory for the regime that had pushed the reform because the February 20 protest movement had called on citizens to boycott the vote over concerns about the transparency of the vote.

In the 2007 legislative elections, turnout stood at 37 per cent and in the 2009 local elections, 51 per cent.

More than 13 million people were eligible to vote on a new constitution to replace the current 1996 version. Moroccans living abroad could also vote at embassies or consulates, a possibility they do not have in legislative elections.

The new constitution was an "entry ticket towards modernity, progress and the construction of democracy," government spokesman Khalid Naciri said. His words were in line with a government and media campaign in favour of the new constitution that had preceded the vote.

Nearly all parliamentary parties campaigned in favour of the new constitution. But critics said it did not go far enough and was drafted by a handpicked commission that does not represent the people.

"The king gives the impression of handing the keys of some of his powers to the prime minister, but in reality, he keeps a copy (of them) in his pocket," said journalist Ahmed Benchemsi.

The wave of unrest sweeping the Arab world spilled over to Morocco in February, when tens of thousands of people took to the streets, following calls from young internet activists.

The February 20 protest movement has the support of some leftist political parties and trade unionists, the semi-legal Islamist movement Justice and Spirituality, and human rights activists.

The new constitution will remove the "sacred" status of the king. However, he will still be qualified as "inviolable," and remain the official leader of Moroccan Muslims.

However under the reforms, the king will continue to chair meetings of the government and the judicial and security councils. He will still be able to dissolve parliament, and will continue to rule over the army and the council of ulemas, or Islamic scholars.

The constitution also contains other changes, such as placing the Amazigh (Berber) language on an equal official footing with Arabic.

The February 20 movement accused the government of trying to influence the referendum by staging demonstrations in favour of it, and by advising imams to preach for a yes vote in mosques.

The regime was hoping that a strong yes vote would keep unrest at bay and cast Morocco in a progressive light in comparison with other Arab countries, analysts said.

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