The Advent of Electoral Democracy in Morocco? the Referendum of 1996

Article excerpt

The 1996 constitutional referendum in Morocco was unprecedented in its establishment of a directly elected Chamber of Representatives. For the first time, a chamber of Parliament will be open to direct suffrage. To be sure, the conduct of future elections will be the true test of the government's commitment to political liberalization. Nonetheless, the 1996 referendum is a significant development and is a further indicator of the gradual political opening that the government of King Hasan II is pursuing in the 1990s.

The referendum of 13 September 1996 to change the Moroccan constitution and create a directly elected Chamber of Representatives was an important development in Morocco, despite the fact that as the referendum approached, the outcome became more or less certain. The fact that the Ministry of Interior reported that 99.6 percent of the electorate approved the measure gave the appearance that this change had been mandated from the top.

This article argues that the referendum was significant not because of the apparent unanimity of voter approval, but because of the debates and developments surrounding it. The creation of a bicameral legislative body, the Majlis al-Nuwwab (Council of Deputies), by means of direct suffrage, satisfied longstanding demands by King Hasan II's opposition. The two principal opposition parties, the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP) and the Istiqlal Party, had argued for years for a popularly elected chamber that would permit accountable and competitive government. Having finally achieved its objective, the opposition may find itself longing for the old system. In the past, opposition parties had derived significant political capital from their ability to criticize government policies. Under the new system they may find themselves the recipients of criticism.

In the last four decades, the legitimacy of the government has been challenged both domestically and internationally.' The palace is opening up the country's political system slowly to counter criticisms by domestic opposition groups and parties that the monarchy is undemocratic and violates civil and human rights. By gaining the opposition's support for the reforms, Hasan hopes to counter or perhaps even co-opt the opposition, a tactic he has used in the past.

The referendum was also pivotal at the level of international opinion. Although the juridical legitimacy of Morocco is hardly in dispute, international recognition of the stability of the government remains of paramount importance to the monarchy.2 Specifically, the government wants to emphasize the fundamental importance of Morocco's relationship with Europe. Hasan's son, the Crown Prince Muhammad, recently published his doctoral dissertation on the significance of that relationship.3 Furthermore, the signing in November 1995 of a Partnership Agreement with the European Union (EU) cemented Morocco's ties with Europe. Mediterranean countries such as Morocco, Tunisia and Turkey have been cast in competition with each other in their attempts to attract foreign investment and expand trade ties with the West. Consequently, Western opinion regarding a given country's political climate is a crucial factor in attracting those investments. The European Parliament's approval of the Partnership Agreement, on 5 June 1996, came only after a lively debate and a request by the Parliament that the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, provide an annual report on the status of Morocco's human rights record. Thus, the perception of the Moroccan government as a stable, democratizing regime is of the utmost importance for Morocco's future economic development.

In sum, the referendum satisfied a key demand of the opposition and may have opened a new era in Moroccan politics. The true test, however, will be in the conduct of elections to the Majlis scheduled for 1997 and in the content and efficacy of policy that emerges from the new body. …