On Friday, Moroccans will head to the polls in a test that will determine whether the King’s recent reforms succeeded in appeasing the anger and frustration of citizens over political, economic, and social issues.
Just a few months after the Tunisian Revolution that spread to other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, Mohamed VI, the King of Morocco, who has been faced with growing tension since February 2011, announced new constitutional reforms that would strengthen democratic institutions and protect the rights of the people. The new amendments, which were approved through a nationwide referendum, gave the prime minister and parliament more executive authority, empowered the judiciary and provincial governments vis-à-vis the monarchy, and allowed for greater freedoms for citizens.
Prior to the recent reforms, political parties and the parliament in Morocco had little power and the prime minister was selected by the King. Under the new constitutional reforms, the party with the largest number of seats in parliament will form the new government and name the prime minister, who will become the head of the government with the power to appoint officials, and even the ability to dissolve parliament, an authority previously held exclusively by the King.
The approved constitutional amendments will strengthen the weak parliament to allow it the capacity to launch investigations into officials with the support of just one-fifth of its members or to begin a censure motion against a minister with the backing of a third of members, as opposed to the unanimous approval demanded by the current constitution.
The judiciary, which in the past never had the necessary independence to carry out its duties efficiently, will be governed by a supreme council composed of judges and the head of the national human rights council. Most importantly, the justice minister will not be part of the council, which allows for the judiciary to have some independence from the executive.
Although a step in the right direction, the King’s move is seen by many as a cosmetic measure to stifle the wave of protests that engulfed the country after similar movements brought down the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. The February 20th Movement, which has been rallying citizens to take to the streets and boycott the elections, insists that the King offered limited political change that does not answer the demands of the people. They also argue that despite what seems to be genuine desire from Mohammed VI to share power, Morocco remains far from becoming a constitutional monarchy since the reforms do not reduce the King’s powers.
The opposition also indicates that despite the amendments, the King remains the head of state and the military and still maintains and appoints ambassadors and diplomats, while retaining the right to name top security, military, and religious officials. In addition, the King will continue to chair two key councils, including the Council of Ministers and the Supreme Security Council, which remain responsible for security policy. The prime minister can chair these councils, but only using an agenda set by the King.
While it is certainly clear that the new package of reforms will not transform overnight Morocco’s 400-year-old monarchy to a constitutional monarchy similar to the one found in the United Kingdom, the monarchy has certainly shown a more flexible approach than other monarchies in the Middle East. Since he took power following the death of his father, Mohammed VI has embarked on a slow but steady journey towards instituting positive reforms, such as allowing greater freedom of expression, boosting women’s rights, including raising the minimum marriage age for women from 15 to 18, and modernizing the local economy. Unlike the other regimes in the Middle East and North Africa, the crackdown on the daily protests has been kept to a minimum in Morocco, which is a clear indication that there’s greater room for freedom speech.
While Mohammed VI himself remains popular, it is unclear if the King’s top-down approach will be able to alleviate the growing frustration among the people over many social issues, persistent poverty, wide spread corruption, and the widening gap between the rich and the poor. At this point, it is up to citizens and civil society organizations to organize, maintain the pressure, and demand further political reform, including establishing vital components of a democratic society, such as independent branches of government and elected institutions.
Regardless of the outcome of the Friday elections, the recent reforms present a great opportunity for the country to continue down the path of democratization rather than risking the danger of violence, similar to what we have seen happen in Libya, Syria, and Yemen.