Moroccans began voting Friday in a referendum on constitutional changes offered by the king to answer demands by pro-democracy protesters. Turnout will be a key test of his support, as the opposition says the proposed reforms are not enough.
REUTERS - Morocco's King Mohammed is widely tipped to win Friday's referendum on a revised constitution he has offered to placate "Arab Spring" street protests, but a low voter turnout could still spur demands for bolder changes.
Morocco's so-called "February 20" street movement has seen nowhere near the mass support of those which toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt. It is calling merely for his powers to be reduced to those wielded by the British or Spanish monarchs, rather than for him to step down altogether.
Morocco reaction to reforms
The new charter explicitly grants the government executive powers, but retains the king at the helm of the army, religious authorities and the judiciary and still allows him to dissolve parliament, though not unilaterally as is the case now.
"A large 'yes' vote with a high abstention rate or spoiled ballots is not a great result, and the monarchy, Makhzen and (political) parties know it," said Lise Storm, senior lecturer in Middle East politics at the University of Exeter.
The Makhzen is the royal court seen by many Moroccans as a largely unaccountable and shadowy political elite.
The 47-year-old ruler has had some success in repairing the bleak legacy of human right abuses, high illiteracy and poverty after his late father's 38-year rule ended in 1999.
But while his personal popularity is seen swinging many voters in favour of the reforms, the margin of victory could be eroded by resentment at what is seen as a wide disparity between rich and poor, and sense of alienation from the political elite.
Results of an online poll conducted by independent portal Lakome.com showed 53 percent of 43,800 participants saying they would boycott the referendum. The vast bulk of the rest said they would vote in favour, but such a low turnout would raise questions over the credibility of the exercise.
Tens of thousands have protested since the king unveiled the proposals this month, saying they do not go far enough and that the referendum timing has not allowed Moroccans -- almost half of whom are illiterate -- the time to study them.
"How can I not vote when they gave me this?" Youssef, a caretaker in an office building in Rabat as he pulled out the campaign T-shirt of the camp backing the revisions.
"(But) we need another 50 years before people understand how a constitution can change public governance," he said of the bafflement felt by many Moroccans at a vote which for many equates to a vote for or against the king.
The "February 20" movement has brought together Islamists bent on setting up an Islamic caliphate and secular left-wing activists focusing on what they see is rising levels of graft.
They say they will continue their common fight for a system of parliamentary monarchy and a more radical reduction in the powers of the king, who they say will remain solidly in charge.
"We reject what has been offered," said Najib Chawki, one of the coordinators of a movement which has no formal leadership.