Elections in Morocco: Major Mediterranean-Maghreb Strategic Shift Highlighted by King Mohammed IV
By Morocco News Agency Staff
Rabat, Morocco --- November 24, 2011 ... Morocco on November 6, 2008, took a decisive step toward resolving the Moroccan Western Sahara (MWS) dispute, a step of strategic importance to the European Union (EU), the Maghreb, and a range of other issues.
The step moved Morocco toward ending the decades of stalemate induced by interference — and failed initiatives — by the international community, allies, and adversaries alike. The move is likely to be met with antagonism by the Government of Algeria and by the increasingly-isolated Algerian-backed POLISARIO movement (Frente Popular para la Liberacion de Saguia el-Hamra y de Rio de Oro) which has claimed to represent the Saharan citizens of Morocco.
Morocco’s King Mohammed VI on November 6, 2008, delivered a major speech on the occasion of the 33rd anniversary of the Green March which the late King Hassan II had led to assert the unity of MWS into the Kingdom after the period of Spanish colonial occupation. King Mohammed VI used the anniversary speech to outline the launch of pivotally-important domestic and governance reforms in the context of seeking a permanent solution for the MWS dispute. The speech, which was carefully constructed to address regional and international diplomatic sensitivities, built up to the key element, which, at its core, ensured that the MWS issue would no longer remain stagnated.
The King started his speech by setting the overall political context for Morocco’s decision regarding MWS. He stressed Morocco’s commitment to reaching a negotiated settlement — based on the Autonomy Plan for MWS — through the United Nations (UN) process. “Morocco is confirming that it is fully prepared to engage in serious negotiations on autonomy [for MWS] as a final solution to the dispute,” the King stated. The implementation of the reform program he would subsequently underline would not come at the expense of the UN negotiations. Hence, the Moroccan autonomy initiative “will remain on the table, to be discussed within the framework of the United Nations.” Rabat is expecting the UN talks to eventually succeed, the King noted, because “Morocco is confident that reason and a forward-looking vision — rather than obsolete views and illusions of the past — will eventually prevail.”
However, the King stressed, the mere progress in international arena did not constitute a viable substitute to the imperative that Morocco assume responsibility for its own destiny and vital interests. “Whatever the developments concerning our national cause at regional or international level, Morocco will continue to rely on itself and uphold its legitimate rights,” the King emphasized. He further asserted that Morocco would remain “vigilant and mobilized and will preserve the cohesion and unity of the internal front, which is the source of our strength”.
At the same time, even when adopting its own programs, Morocco still hoped that the international community would remain involved in consultations and advice for the development of the Moroccan initiative. “Thanks to the encouragement and support of the international community, several UN and international institutions have, since, reconsidered their stance on the issue,” the King explained. The UNSC [UN Security Council], for example, endorsed the Moroccan initiative and discarded all other “obsolete, unrealistic proposals, which lack any real vision for the future.”
The King then turned to Morocco’s relations with Algeria, Morocco’s main neighbor and the POLISARIO’s chief patron and sponsor. The King stressed that “Morocco has shown that it is genuinely willing to make a distinction between the regional dispute over the Sahara and a desire for improved bilateral relations with Algeria”.
The King expressed Morocco’s regret that Algeria’s official policy “has been to thwart the positive thrust generated by the Moroccan initiative, using its energies to maintain the status quo, with the risk of balkanization of the Maghreb and Sahel regions, at a time when profound regional and global changes require us to rally together to tackle decisive development challenges and security risks.”
The King lamented Algeria’s seemingly inexplicable, adamant refusals to normalize cross-border relations. “The continued rejection [by Algeria] not only of all Moroccan steps to normalize relations, but also those proposed by sister and friendly nations, including influential members of the international community, is, from both an historical and geographical perspective, quite illogical; as illogical, in fact, as the closed borders between the two sister nations.”
The King reiterated Morocco’s “keen desire to have open borders and normal relations stems from a firm commitment to brotherhood and good neighborliness, from our attachment to people’s right to free movement and exchange, and from our eagerness to achieve the integration of Maghreb countries, which is inevitable.”
The crux of the speech was the King’s decision — and statement — that Morocco had resolved to unilaterally implement the “sophisticated process of regionalization” which would ultimately provide all Moroccans (ie: including those of MWS) with a new system of local governance. Given the immense diversity of the population of Morocco — a tapestry of nations and tribes — the new policy of regionalization would enable all Moroccan to better secure and express their distinction and traditions within the framework of unified yet diverse Morocco. In practical terms, the King talked about granting more powers to the local governments so that they could adapt to the distinct character and traditions of every population group and region of the country. Essentially, the King announced the launch of a process of profound domestic reforms in Morocco, both structurally (redistricting) and governance-wise (regionalization).
The King stressed that Morocco could no longer postpone domestic reforms until there was commensurate progress in the international arena. “Whatever the developments concerning our national cause at regional or international level, Morocco will continue to rely on itself and uphold its legitimate rights. It will remain vigilant and mobilized and will preserve the cohesion and unity of the internal front, which is the source of our strength,” the King stated. Therefore, even while waiting for the international community to deliver negotiated solutions for the MWS, the King explained, “Morocco cannot afford to remain idle; nor can it allow the country’s development and democratic process to be subject to the tactics and maneuvers of others”.
Therefore, the King announced, he had decided “to open a new page in the ongoing reforms” he had been spearheading. Toward this end, Morocco “shall soon be launching a gradual, sophisticated process of regionalization which will cover all parts of the Kingdom, especially the Moroccan Sahara region. I am keen to enable all the inhabitants and sons of the Moroccan Sahara to run their local affairs democratically, within a unified Moroccan nation, either through the implementation of an appropriate, broad-based regionalization system — which will reflect the will of the nation — or through the proposed autonomy statute, once a UN-sponsored consensual political agreement is reached as a final solution to this dispute.”
Significantly, the reform program would apply equally to all Moroccans, from the Mediterranean to the Mauritanian border, and from the Atlantic coast to the Algerian border. The King stressed the profound significance of the reform process and outlined the roadmap for the nation.
Regionalization implies a major structural reform which requires collective efforts for its development and finalization. To this end, I wish to share with you a roadmap which spells out the project’s fundamental elements, objectives and proposed action.
We have far-reaching ambitions in this respect. Our aim is to enable good local
governance to take a firm hold, respond more closely to the citizens’ needs and boost integrated, regional economic, social and cultural development.
In order to achieve these objectives, the proposed reform should be based on unity, balance and solidarity.
By unity we mean the unity of the state, of the homeland and of our territory. Indeed, there can be no regionalization except within the framework of this unity.
As for balance, it can be achieved through a clear definition of the exclusive powers of the state and those of regional institutions, so that the latter may discharge their mission with regard to development, taking into account the necessity for rational action, coherence and complementarity.
National solidarity is the cornerstone of advanced regionalization since the devolution of powers to the region goes hand in hand with the need to provide the necessary public funds and promote self-generated income.
Successful regionalization also hinges on efficient districting so as to have regions that are economically and geographically integrated, as well as socially and culturally coherent.
The King announced the establishment of a committee of experts which would formulate the specifics and details of the program. He then reiterated the changes in the country’s system of governance, namely, the empowerment of local governments at the expense of centralized authorities. The King stressed that he had already urged the Government “to prepare a national devolution charter which should lead to an effective system for the management of devolved powers.
This system, designed to usher in a complete change from rigid centralized management, is to be based on a territorial approach that aims to ensure the devolution of central powers to external services, which should, themselves, be organized into regional technical hubs. The charter should also include the appropriate legal mechanisms needed for territorial governance and enable walis and governors to carry out their mission, especially with respect to supervising the efficiency of state action and coordinating the work of the various stakeholders concerned at territorial, provincial and regional levels.”
Taken together, the reform process the King announced constitutes a major stride toward further democratization and greater freedoms — both personal and communal — for all Moroccans. The King thus ushered in a profound initiative. The King concluded that “whatever the circumstances, the Kingdom of Morocco will remain true to its cultural identity as an open nation, encouraged and inspired by the credibility enjoyed by the Moroccan model at regional and international levels.”
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The reform process introduced by King Mohammed VI makes perfect sense in the aftermath of the Parliamentary elections and the analysis of the situation in MWS made by the then personal envoy of the UN Secretary General’s Envoy for Western Sahara. The King’s reforms constitute a direct evolution of the conclusions of the September 7, 2007, elections and recommendations of the UN senior official most knowledgeable about the MWS.
The parliamentary elections conclusively demonstrated that the population of MWS considered themselves an integral part of the Kingdom. The parliamentary elections were a major step in the modernization and democratization campaign initiated and led by King Mohammed VI. The King and Government clearly committed to these elections convinced that these objectives could not be realized without concurrent domestic reforms, particularly democratic reforms and individual rights.
The most telling outcome of the elections was the analysis of the voters’ turnout. The national average was 37 percent, the lowest in Morocco’s history and a manifestation of the population’s rejection of the traditional political parties offering “panacea solution” for the country’s problems. This was clear from the difference between the turnout in the Royalist conservative rural areas — 43 percent — and the urban areas — 30 percent — where the absenteeism in the urban slums was overwhelming. Since the slums are the bastion of the Islamists’ and socialists’ power, the voters demonstrated their disappointment and rejection by not voting (since these areas do not have the traditional power structure because of the weakening of the tribal/clan hold on society, there were no viable alternatives to the Islamist and socialist candidates who people could vote for).
The voting patterns in the MWS merit special attention. In a sharp contrast with the low turnout in the urban centers of northern Morocco - the voters’ turnout in the MWS was extremely heavy (Dakhla 62 percent; Smara 58 percent, El Ayoune 50 percent). This is a clear demonstration that the population in MWS considered itself Moroccan, convinced that it had vital stakes in the political process in Rabat, and determined to have its say there. Indeed, foreign observers reported vibrant voting and political discourse throughout MWS. As well, no violations and improprieties were reported. Thus, the Moroccan parliamentary elections in MWS — more than a “referendum” — demonstrated that the local population considered itself an integral part of a single, unified Morocco.
On the basis of the election conclusions, Morocco should have been encouraged to complete the reforms initiated by the King.
Eager to resolve the MWS crisis within the framework of the UN, Morocco introduced in the Autumn of 2007 an extensive Autonomy Plan which won praise from the US and most world powers. Subsequently, Morocco engaged in several rounds of the UN-sponsored negotiations in Manhasset, New York. The rigidity demonstrated by both the Algerian Government and the POLISARIO leadership convinced most UN observers that the only viable solution for the MWS problem should be based on inclusion within Morocco, whether based on the Moroccan Autonomy plan or other arrangement securing the population’s individual and communal rights.
Peter van Walsum, then the personal envoy of the UN Secretary General for Western Sahara, could not remain silent. On April 22, 2008, he faxed lengthy comments faxed to UNSC members in which he injected pragmatism and realism into the process. Van Walsum stressed the need to introduce “political reality” into the ongoing UN-sponsored negotiations process. As it was then, he stressed, the Manhasset talks process was at an impasse. “For the Frente POLISARIO, a referendum with independence as an option is indispensable for the achievement of self-determination, whereas Morocco is unable to accept such a referendum, but believes self-determination can be achieved through other forms of popular consultation,” van Walsum wrote. No amount of international mediation was going to break this deadlock. Moreover, the international community had its own vested interests in the region and conflict.
Consequently, van Walsum wrote, he had “concluded that there was no pressure on Morocco to abandon its claim of sovereignty over the territory and, therefore, that an independent Western Sahara was not a realistic proposition”. For a viable agreement to be reached, he stressed, both sides should negotiate “on the assumption that there will not be a referendum with independence as an option and that, therefore, the outcome will necessarily fall short of independence”. Failing to adopt realistic solution, he warned, would only aggravate the crisis in MWS. “I felt the need to reiterate this conclusion that Western Sahara independence is not a goal that can be attained,” van Walsum concluded. Peter van Walsum was forced to resign soon afterwards specifically for speaking his mind and stating the obvious.
Since then, the Manhasset Talks process became moribund.
Meanwhile, Morocco was making strides in the international arena. Most important was the EU’s decision, on October 13, 2008, to grant Morocco “advanced status” with the EU, comparable to that of Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland. Morocco’s “advanced status” includes the setting up of a “common economic space” based on the rules of the European Economic Area, comprising the EU nations plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. Foreign Affairs Minister Taib Fassi-Fihri noted that Brussels and Rabat would draw up an “ambitious roadmap which will significantly boost the bilateral relations at all levels and lay the foundations of a new statutory step, in line with the assets, progress and ambitions of Morocco and the EU”.
Morocco’s new partnership with the EU “extends the scope of relations in their strategic, political, economic, and human dimensions.” Under the agreement, Morocco will also participate in a number of European agencies, such as Europol, the European Air Security Agency and the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction. Significantly, Fassi Fihri explained, the new “advanced status” agreement with the EU could form a road map towards a new formal bilateral agreement after 2013.
Such circumstances made it imperative for Morocco to complete implementing the King’s extensive domestic reform process so that a unified Morocco could begin de facto inclusion in the EU. The November 6, 2008, speech by King Mohammed VI was critical, then, in outlining what Morocco would do in the near future.