Moroccans Vote On New Constitution

Moroccan voters go to the polls on Friday in a nationwide referendum on political changes proposed by the king. Morocco, like other countries in North Africa and the Middle East, was swept by pro-democracy demonstrations at the beginning of the year. Demonstrators protested a lack of freedoms, weak economy and political corruption.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Morocco is a country that was on the edge of the Arab Spring, yet it is holding the first election in the region since upheavals swept across North Africa and the Middle East. Even though that country does have a parliament and constitution, the king of Morocco wields nearly absolute power. Today that could change as Moroccans vote on a referendum on constitutional reforms.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro is in the Moroccan city of Casablanca and joins us on the line.

Good morning.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: So Lourdes, what are people voting for exactly?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, people here in Casablanca and all over Morocco are gathering today at polling stations. We can already see lines snaking out in front of them, people lining up to vote. What they are voting for are the changes in the constitution here.

So now, for example, if these changes pass, the prime minister, chosen from the largest party elected to parliament, would take over as the head of government. It also allows for the judiciary here to be more independent. It enshrines women's rights more clearly. And it also makes Berber an official language along with Arabic. This will be the first time a North African country has given official status to the region's indigenous language. So quite a few changes.

MONTAGNE: And are these changes, these measures likely to pass?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Very likely indeed. There's been a huge campaign here, Renee, to get out the yes vote. The government has mobilized all its considerable resources. At the mosques, people have been told to vote yes. The media has been overwhelmingly supportive of the king's reforms. Pro-government supporters have been bussed in to act as a counterweight to any opposition demonstrations. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to hear what the opposition has to say here in any public forum. This is not a protest movement that has the wind in its sails right now. The government has really tried to blanket the media and other forums to really get out the yes vote today.

MONTAGNE: Now, you just mentioned the king's reforms. Before we get to talking about the opposition and their concerns, why did the king decide to allow a change in the government that would give him less power?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, you're right. I mean this is not a country that has seen the huge protests that have roiled other parts of North Africa and the Middle East. This is a country that largely reveres its relatively young King Mohammed the Sixth, who is 47 years old. He's someone who even opponents say has tried to clean up the rather retched legacy of human rights abuses under his father.

People here are not trying to depose him. They're simply trying to curb his powers. And he wanted to get out in front of the protest movement. He didn't want this to grow into something more, and that's why they feel he started this process of constitutional changes.

MONTAGNE: Okay. But there is an opposition and what are the concerns of the opposition in this vote?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There is an opposition. It's a group mainly led by the February 20th movement, the youth movement, which kick-started these protests, and they have called for a boycott of the vote today. First off, they say how the constitutional changes were agreed upon was completely unconsultitive(ph), it was done in secret by palace loyalists, and they say unsurprisingly what resulted from that process were changes that are far from what has been demanded. They say the changes are superficial. The king still retains almost complete autonomy and control. He remains, for example, commander of the military. He heads the Council of Ministers, so he still effectively runs the executive branch of the government. He signs and ratifies international treaties. The list is long of what the king is still entitled to do.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, speaking to us from Casablanca, where Moroccans today will vote on changes to their constitution.

Thanks very much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.

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