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By David Rosenberg
Morocco is making a bid to become the first Arab Spring country to undergo democratic change without lethal violence as some 13 million go to the polls on Friday to vote on a package of constitutional amendments designed to rein in the king's powers and expand civil rights.
The two weeks since the amendments were first unveiled by King Mohammad VI have seen a bitter debate between those urging a "yes" vote and those calling for a boycott of the referendum. But with the popular ruler backing the changes - he declared "I shall vote 'yes'" in his speech announcing the reforms - they are likely to win a majority of supporters.
But analysts said the real test for Morocco in making an orderly and peaceful transition will come in the months ahead as the king and the country's elected politicians implement the amendments. Many are phrased in such general terms that Mohammad may end of up retaining many of his powers.
"I think this is a step in the right direction, but at the end of the day the king remains the center of the system, completely untouchable," Larbi Sadiki, who teaches Middle East Politics at Britain's University of Exeter, told The Media Line. "He retains much power in the appointment of prime minister and cabinet minister. He can still dissolve parliament."
At the distant western edge of the Muslim world, Morocco has largely avoided the mass protests and violence that have shaken Arab countries as close as Tunisia and as distant as Bahrain. Nevertheless, Mohammad, scion of the 400-year-old dynasty, began as early as March to talk about reforms that would gently push the country into a constitutional monarchy.
Among the most important changes Moroccans will be asked to approve is an amendment that requires the king to select a prime minister from the party that wins the most seats in parliament. At present, the king can make anyone prime minister. The prime minister will be the head of government, not the king.
In the realm of civil rights, women will be guaranteed "civic and social" equality with men. Previously, only "political" equality was guaranteed. Most controversially, the Berber language will become an official state language along with Arabic. While some 8.5 million of Morocco's 31.5 million people speak one of the three main Berber dialects, Moroccan nationalists are upset by what they regard as an affront to unity.
But critics among the February 20 movement, an opposition movement modeled after those elsewhere that have arisen in the Arab Spring, say the reforms don't go far enough. Among other things, the kind will continue to maintain control of Morocco's security and foreign policy, as well as matters of religion.
But the critics' biggest gripe is how the amendments were written to begin with. It was a top down process led by the king and closely controlled by his advisers, with little public input, said Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
As leaders in Tunisia and Egypt were ousted in the face of mass protests and those in Yemen and Libya were in jeopardy, Mohammad ordered work on the amendments to get underway. Representatives from political parties, labor unions and non-government organizations were consulted along the way, but they were not party to the discussions of the commission preparing the amendments.
They only saw the draft a day before the king revealed its terms in an address to the nation. Besides the February 20 Movement, the Islamist Justice and Charity group has also rejected the amendments. But instead of calling voters to cast a "no" ballot, they want them to boycott the referendum altogether.
"The state is trying… to draft a constitution that consecrates tyranny and corruption by a committee appointed from above in a non-democratic manner," February 20 said on its Facebook page, vowing to continue its protests after the vote is over. "The movement will continue to oppose all forms of anti-democracy."
Most of the political establishment, however, has rallied behind the king, including the country's three biggest political parties -- the Justice and Development Party, an Islamist formation; the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP); and the conservative Istiqlal party -- have also urged their supporters to vote "yes."
"Yes to the Constitution. Yes to the Construction of a Parliamentary Monarchy," the USFP party's newspaper Liberation urged Moroccans to vote.
Sadiki of Exeter said the king has mobilized support for the amendment. He has used upfront methods, such as rallies in major cities like Rabat and Casablanca last Sunday to back the reforms, and ensuring that expatriates vote. Morocco's New York consulate is making six polling stations available around the U.S. for Moroccan nationals, including those holding dual citizenships, to vote for three days starting on Friday.
But some analysts said the government was also using behind-the-scene methods to ensure a "yes," among other things pressuring small merchants at the mercy of government inspectors and labor unions whose rank and file work for the state into supporting the proposals.
Le Matin, a pro-government daily, sited an Interior Ministry survey that found that 80 percent of voters planned to vote "yes." But an on-line survey produced exactly the opposite results. Among 29,888 participants, 47 percent said they are boycotting, 43.4 percent are voting yes, 6.4 percent are voting no.
But the real transition will only begin the day after, Carnegie's Ottaway wrote in a commentary June 20.
"The impact of the new constitution depends on the way in which it is implemented," she wrote in a commentary June 20. "The past performance by the parliament suggests that it is not a foregone conclusion that the parliament will make good use of the potential. "
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