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Morocco sets path for reform but questions of impact linger

Morocco’s monarchy spent the better part of 2011 touting new political reforms. Now, following the first national elections under a new constitution, the country’s leadership is faced with the challenge of finding a stable way forward and the means to pay for its new spending plans.


Will Mohammed VI's reforms be enough - and can he finance them?

Echoing the actions of governments across the region, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI responded to a growing wave of public protests in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya earlier this year with a two-tiered pledge of political reform and increased financial aid to the local population. Although the country had largely escaped the kind of large-scale demonstrations that filled city centres in Cairo and Tunis, Morocco’s February 20 movement of reform-minded groups and members of the Justice and Development Party (PJD) garnered support as the country’s version of the Arab Spring.

After nearly tripling food and fuel subsidies and increasing government worker salaries, the king introduced a new constitution that would be the subject of a public referendum during the summer. Among other changes, the new document placed greater authority in the country’s parliament, guaranteed the appointment of a prime minister from the party with the chamber majority and promised an overhaul of the judiciary. The constitution also removed the monarch’s sacred status, though what that means in practice remains unclear. Passed with 98.5-percent approval on July 1, the constitution and the subsidies helped calm the reform movement to a degree and set the stage for the November 25 elections.

The elections themselves produced substantial gains for the moderate Islamist PJD, earning 100 of the possible 395 seats available. The results ensured that the new prime minister would be chosen from their party, but still required them to pursue a parliamentary coalition to govern. However, as welcome as the election results and constitutional reforms have been at home and abroad, it is far from clear how this year’s changes will impact the country’s economic and political futures, if at all.

Lingering doubts

Members of the country’s reform movement remain sceptical of Mohammed VI’s actions, suggesting that any changes that occurred were cosmetic and have kept ultimate authority in the hands of the palace. Indeed, despite the new constitution, issues pertaining to religion, security and the economy remain under the control of the king, making claims of real, substantial change difficult to support.

Furthermore, while a boycott on election participation by the February 20 movement was viewed as mostly a wash, the country’s low voter turnout (45 percent of registered voters) and even lower registration suggest that many in Morocco still feel the government has little authority to act beyond the reach of the monarchy.

“Few believe the new parliament will solve the many problems plaguing nearly 35 million Moroccans, where one in three young, urban males are unemployed and poverty is widespread,” noted Yale Associate Professor Ellen Lust in a Christian Science Monitor editorial.

Suggesting that the king’s actions amount to little more than window dressing, Shadi Hamid of The Atlantic argued that they were actually part of an effective, if not terribly sustainable strategy to calm the protest movement.

“Where Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya resorted to flagrantly rigged elections, monarchs in Jordan, Morocco, Bahrain, and Kuwait hold reasonably free polls and permit legal opposition,” he wrote. “It just so happens that these elections determine relatively little of real importance. Decision-making authority remains with the king and the cabinets that he appoints. These regimes have been able to create the illusion of reform even as they strengthened their grip on power.”

Inside the country, both the new constitution and election results were greeted by the February 20 movement with ambivalence, insisting that both were created and conducted by appointees of the king and did not warrant recognition. The movement pledged to continue demonstrating against the government.

Even if Mohammed VI’s promoted reforms come to be seen as valid, it remains to be seen how comfortable he will be in his newly reduced role or how far he is willing to bend to meet the demands of an increasingly organized and vocal reform movement.

Footing the bill

Further complicating the monarch’s approach is a significant budget deficit brought on by reduced trade from the European Union and the costs of the king’s raised subsidies earlier this year. This deficit and a lack of the kind of oil and gas revenues that have allowed other monarchies in the region to continue to increase public spending, have left Morocco with few options other than finding new revenue streams or speeding the process of real political reform.

Despite the clear economic challenges facing both the monarchy and the new parliamentary leadership, the government has insisted it will be able to reduce the budget deficit in the first quarter of 2012, despite slower than expected growth among its main trading partners. According to a Reuters report, the government is aiming to cut its budget deficit to 4 percent of GDP even as it forecasts its growth rate slowing to 4.8 over the coming months.

Beyond regional trade and the country’s phosphate industry, Morocco has laid out several other projects meant to raise revenue over the coming year, including the announcement that sovereign wealth funds in Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have pledged €2 billion towards supporting the country’s tourism industry.

Further, the country has set about changing its reputation as one largely free of oil and gas reserves by embracing less conventional energy endeavours, including new offshore projects and launching geological surveys of the country’s deep-set shale potential.

In November, the country’s Office National des Hydrocarbures et des Mines (ONHYM) began distributing literature at a hydrocarbon conference in South Africa, promoting 22 blocks available for exploration efforts, though it stopped short of announcing any formal rounds of bidding. Representatives of the ONHYM have promoted the geological similarities between the Moroccan coast and the oil-rich area off Nova Scotia, noting they likely stood next to each other millions of years ago as reason enough to promote the area’s hydrocarbon potential.

Vital to keeping the country moving forward and frustration under control while the new government takes shape, these revenue streams may just be the key to both keeping the king in place and the reform movement in motion.

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Published: Dec 8 2011
Category: Politics, Featured
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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