Thousands of people gather as they take part in a rally to support the government's project for constitutional reform during a peaceful protest in Casablancahttp://news.yahoo.com/turnout-key-moroccans-vote-kings-reforms-091824853.html

RABAT (Reuters) – Moroccans voted on Friday in a referendum on a revised constitution offered by King Mohammed to placate “Arab Spring” street protesters and the “yes” camp was tipped to win despite boycott calls by opponents.

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.

That falls far short of the demands of the “February 20” protest movement, which wants a parliamentary monarchy where the king’s powers would be kept in check by elected lawmakers.

However the movement so far has not attracted the mass support of popular uprisings that toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt. It urged Moroccans to boycott the vote and said a low turnout would back their calls for more radical reforms.

Turnout stood at 26 percent by midday local time (1100 GMT), according to the interior ministry. Preliminary results were due to be announced late on Friday, a ministry spokesman said.

“I voted ‘yes’ because we have to obey the Commander of the Faithful,” retired agriculture ministry engineer Samira Denguir said in the middle-class Hassan suburb of the capital Rabat, referring to the king’s religious role.

“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 in England.

The Makhzen is the royal court seen by many Moroccans as a largely unaccountable and shadowy political and business elite.

The 47-year-old ruler has had some success in repairing the legacy of human right abuses, high illiteracy and poverty he inherited after his late father’s 38-year rule ended in 1999.

WESTERN ALLY

A staunch Western ally, Morocco under King Mohammed has stepped up cooperation against terrorism and illegal migration, notably with the European Union which is keen to avoid the spread of Islamic militancy along its southern shores.

But while his personal popularity is expected to swing many voters in favor of the reforms, the margin of victory could be eroded by resentment at wide disparities between rich and poor, and a sense of alienation from the political elite.

“I’m not voting because I couldn’t get my voter card and to be totally honest I couldn’t care less. If they really mean good they would have done it years ago,” said market trader Younes Driouki, 29, heading to the beach with his surfboard.

Results of an online poll conducted by independent portal Lakome.com showed 52 percent of 51,200 participants saying they would boycott the referendum. The vast bulk of the rest said they would vote in favor, but such a low turnout would raise questions about the credibility of the exercise.

Some 13 million people registered to vote — more than 6 million fewer than the 19.4 million Moroccans over 19 years old in a 2009 census. Moroccans above 18 are eligible to vote.

Hamid Benchrifa, an analyst from the Social Development Agency, said the disparity may be due either to voters not updating their identity cards after changing address, or a simple lack of interest in politics.

The February 20 movement has brought together Islamists bent on setting up an Islamic caliphate and secular left-wingers focusing on what they see as rising levels of corruption.

They say they will continue their common fight for a system of parliamentary monarchy and more curbs on the king’s powers.

(Editing by Mark John and Mark Heinrich)