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Morocco's referendum on reform: Model for Arab Spring?

Some Western observers see Morocco's referendum on constitutional reform today as forging a new path for embattled Arab leaders. It is widely expected to pass, but many protesters boycotted.

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Morocco's Princess Lalla Hasna casts her ballot at a voting station in Rabat Friday in a referendum on a revised constitution offered by King Mohammed to placate "Arab Spring" street protesters. The 'yes' camp was tipped to win despite boycott calls by opponents.

Maghreb Arab Press/Handout/Reuters

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Moroccans voted Friday in a referendum on constitutional reforms, amid deep disagreement over whether it represented a new path for reform in a troubled region or another autocrat's hollow bid to diffuse popular discontent.

"I voted yes because this new constitution introduces good changes in the society, without the use of violence," said Marwan Akroum, a company manager who had just emerged from a polling station in the popular Rabat neighborhood of Yacoub Mansour. "I believe this reform is a unique model in the Muslim Arab world."

The proposed changes give more executive power to the prime minister, strengthen the judiciary, stress the importance of gender equality, and recognize Berber as a national language. Yet, critics point out, the changes fall far short of transforming Morocco into a European-style constitutional monarchy, as the opposition wanted.

"This reform is partial," says Elabadila Chbihna, one of the coordinators of the February 20 protest movement, which boycotted the referendum. "We are not at the vegetable market, negotiating prices. The king cannot propose an 80 percent democracy."

With the new constitution, King Mohammed VI – whose family has reigned for three centuries – looses his "sacred" status. Yet he remains the Amir al Mu'minin, the Commander of the Faithful, thus maintaining power over the religious establishment. He also retains control over the defense and security forces. He can still impose emergency laws. While the prime minister can appoint all ministers, the king has veto power on those appointments and all new laws need to be confirmed by him.

"The power remains concentrated in the hands of the monarch," says Othmane Baqa, member of the Conference democratique du Travail, a workers' union with the February 20 movement. He supported the boycott, he said, because the king did not take into consideration proposals submitted by the opposition.

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