Morocco: how many really voted?

The new Moroccan constitution, endorsed by a referendum on Friday, has had a generally warm and uncritical reception from the US and the EU.

joint statement from the EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and commissioner Stefan Fule described it as "a significant response to the legitimate aspirations of the Moroccan people" while urging "swift and effective implementation of this reform agenda".

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton welcomed it "as a step toward the fulfilment of the aspirations and rights of all Moroccans".

The Moroccan interior ministry is claiming a 98.5% "yes" vote, with voter turnout put at more than 73%.

Although there was never any doubt that the new constitution would be approved, the turnout is important as a general indicator of how much enthusiasm there is for the changes among ordinary voters.

The official turnout figure is strongly disputed by the Moroccan Coalition for Parliamentary Monarchy, according to a report in The National. Based on reports from polling stations, it estimates maximum voter turnout at only 20% in cities and 40% in the countryside, and also claims that some stations were instructed to send blank tally sheets to the interior ministry.

More anecdotally, the Angry Arab blog quotes impressions from a reporter on the ground in Morocco:

"Today I drove through 470km of Morocco in order to have a good look of the referendum. ALL places I passed where people ought to cast their votes were empty, and I'm talking about these places: Driouch, al-Hoceima, Bni Boueyash, Imzouren, Guercif, Taza, Oudamlil and Khmessat. 

"People I talked too were quite indifferent. I listened to the radio all day in the car ... and everyone on air was excited, as if Morocco is at the threshold of a new democratic era. All people interviewed by the various radio stations went to the polls or were about to go and all were unanimously in favor of the new great constitution which will put Morocco at par with 'advanced' countries such as Spain, Brazil, Holland and Great Britain ..."

The official turnout figure does look implausibly high, especially since the outcome was not in doubt, and a rigged tally would not augur well for the sincerity of the king's proposed "reforms". Just for comparison, turnout in the recent Egyptian referendum on amending the constitution was put at 41%, with 77% voting in favour. 

As I noted earlier, the new constitution (full text here in French) does have some good points, though it remains to be seen whether the referendum will really amount to a vote "to curb the king". The test will be how it is applied in practice – and some are extremely dubious about that.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 3 July 2011.