Morocco approves King Mohammed's constitutional reforms

Official figures show a high turnout and an overwhelming vote in favour of the changes

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Moroccans have approved constitutional reforms put forward by King Mohammed VI in response to recent pro-democracy protests, preliminary results show.

With almost all the ballots counted, 98.5% of people had voted in favour, Interior Minister Taib Cherkaoui said.

The reforms grant executive powers to a prime minister, but the king is retained as head of the military, religious authorities and judiciary.

The concessions come after protests inspired by the so-called Arab Spring.

Popular uprisings have toppled Presidents Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.

'Sole player'

The turnout in Friday's constitutional referendum - the first under King Mohammed's 12-year rule - was nearly 73%, officials said.

The king did not say anything as he cast his vote in the capital, Rabat, but he has described the reforms as a "decisive historic transition".

All the country's main political parties, unions, civic groups, religious leaders and media urged Moroccans to vote in favour of the new constitution.

"I support the king, he keeps Morocco safe. It is not like Algeria and Yemen, it's stable here," Rachid Aboul-Hassan, a cab driver in Rabat told the Associated Press on Friday.

At the scene

Some called it the "big decision day" here in Morocco. Yet Moroccans seemed to go about their daily life without much fuss unlike the days leading up to the referendum. Some people here said it was the quiet before the storm.

In one of the polling centres, set up in Hassan II High School in the capital, Rabat, all voting rooms looked the same. They contained a Moroccan flag and a poster of the king, both taped next to each other on the blackboard. Participation was slow in the morning but people say much more voters will turn out after Friday prayers.

There was a sense of anticipation in the kingdom, many people felt they were making history and they said they were weighing their vote carefully. They knew their vote - no or yes - might represent a referendum on the king himself.

"There are problems here, but we are taking small steps, slowly."

However, the youth-based February 20 Movement organised weeks of pro-reform demonstrations through websites such as Facebook and YouTube which brought thousands on to the streets. They urged their supporters to boycott the vote.

"We reject what has been offered. It still leaves a sole player in the field," one of the movement's co-ordinators, Najib Chawki, told Reuters news agency.

'Commitment to democracy'

If the results are confirmed, the king will remain the head of state, the military, and the Islamic faith in Morocco, but the prime minister - to be chosen from the largest party elected to parliament - will take over as head of the government.

The king has pledged that the reforms will reinforce the independence of the judiciary, boost efforts to tackle corruption, guarantee freedom of expression and gender rights and make Berber an official language, alongside Arabic.

The reform plan has been welcomed abroad, with the European Union saying it "signals a clear commitment to democracy".

Protesters shout anti-government slogans during a rally organised by the 20 February Movement against a proposed new constitution in Casablanca, Morocco, Sunday 26 June 2011 Those calling for a boycott say the vote has been called too quickly to allow proper debate

But it fails to meet the demands of a full constitutional monarchy sought by many protesters.

Many activists have been sceptical about the king's promises of change, saying Morocco's 400-year-old monarchy has a long history of enacting superficial reforms.

Morocco has been facing severe economic challenges with high unemployment and rising levels of poverty.

King Mohammed, 47, acceded to the throne in 1999 following the death of his father, Hassan II, and now heads the Arab world's longest-serving dynasty.

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