Moroccans approve curb on king's powers in poll

The new constitution, proposed by King Mohammed VI to stave off escalating tensions in the country, was supported by 98 per cent of voters.

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RABAT // Moroccans have given a resounding "yes" vote to a new constitution proposed by King Mohammed VI, who offered reforms in a bid to quiet protests inspired by pro-democracy uprisings in the Arab world.

More than 98 percent of voters backed a new constitution put forward in a referendum on Friday, Interior Minister Taib Cherkaoui announced on state television just after midnight. Voter turnout was 72.65 percent, he added.

Faced with demonstrations modelled on those that ousted long-serving leaders in Tunisia and Egypt, Mohammed VI announced the referendum last month to devolve some of his powers to the prime minister and parliament, saying the reform would "consolidate the pillars of a constitutional monarchy."

Critics denounced the result and the youth-based February 20 Movement, which organised the weeks of pro-reform protests, announced it would hold another demonstration on Sunday.

"The movement will demonstrate peacefully on Sunday to protest against this ridiculous result," Najib Chaouki, one of the movement's leaders, told AFP.

"This referendum was illegal because it was marked by massive violations of democratic principles," he said.

Authorities insisted, however, that the result was a major step forward for the country.

"We have turned a page in our history and opened the door to participatory democracy," Communications Minister Khalid Naciri said after results were announced.

The result was welcomed abroad, with French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe saying the Moroccan people had made a "clear and historic decision."

"In the context of a shaken region, where the democratic process had to be imposed by confrontation, sometimes violent... Morocco has succeeded in four months, peacefully and with dialogue, to take a decisive step," he said in a statement.

European Union leaders said, "We welcome the positive outcome of the referendum on the new Constitution in Morocco and commend the peaceful and democratic spirit surrounding the vote."

"Now we encourage the swift and effective implementation of this reform agenda," a statement said, adding that "Moroccan citizens should remain at the centre of this process and the inclusive dialogue with their representatives should continue and grow stronger."

The United States had also hailed the referendum on Friday as "an important step in Morocco's ongoing democratic development."

Under the draft constitution, the king will remain head of state, the military, and the Islamic faith in Morocco.

But the prime minister, chosen from the largest party elected to parliament, will take over as the head of government.

Mohammed VI, who in 1999 took over the Arab world's longest-serving dynasty, offered reforms after the February 20 Movement organised weeks of protests that brought thousands to the streets to call for more democracy, better economic prospects and an end to corruption.

The reforms fall far short of the full constitutional monarchy many protesters were demanding and the movement had urged a boycott of Friday's vote.

The brief campaign was dominated by the "yes" side, including Morocco's main political parties, unions, civic groups, religious leaders and media, with few signs of an organised "no" vote movement,

Analysts said the result was a step toward democracy for Morocco, but far from the final one.

"A constitution does not change a system, a constitution creates the framework in which a system can change," said Mohamed Tozy, a political science professor at Casablanca's Hassan II University.

"Is the constitution a good framework for Morocco to change, and to change radically? Yes. Will the constitution change Morocco? No. It will depend on the people who will apply it," he said.

Along with changes granting the prime minister more executive authority, the new constitution will reinforce the independence of the judiciary and enlarge parliament's role.

It will also remove a reference to the king as "sacred", though he will remain "Commander of the Faithful" and "inviolable".

The new constitution will also guarantee more rights to women and make Berber an official language along with Arabic -- the first time a north African country has granted official status to the region's indigenous language.