Morocco approves curbs on king's powers

Moroccans have overwhelmingly approved a new constitution curbing the vast powers of King Mohammed VI after authorities offered reforms in a bid to quiet protests inspired by uprisings in the Arab world.

More than 98 percent of voters had backed a new constitution put forward in a referendum on Friday, Interior Minister Taib Cherkaoui announced on state television just after midnight. Voter turnout had been 72.65 percent, he added.

Faced with demonstrations modelled on those that ousted long-serving leaders in Tunisia and Egypt, Mohammed VI announced the referendum last month to devolve some of his powers to the prime minister and parliament, saying the reform would "consolidate the pillars of a constitutional monarchy."

Critics were quick to denounce the result and the youth-based February 20 Movement, which organised the weeks of pro-democracy protests, announced it would hold another demonstration on Sunday.

"The movement will demonstrate peacefully on Sunday to protest against this ridiculous result," Najib Chaouki, one of the movement's leaders, told AFP.

"This referendum was illegal because it was marked by massive violations of democratic principles," he said.

The United States had hailed the referendum on Friday, with State Department spokesman Mark Toner telling reporters it was "an important step in Morocco's ongoing democratic development."

Under the draft constitution, the king will remain head of state, the military, and the Islamic faith in Morocco.

But the prime minister, chosen from the largest party elected to parliament, will take over as the head of government.

Mohammed VI, who in 1999 took over the Arab world's longest-serving dynasty, offered reforms after the February 20 Movement organised weeks of protests that brought thousands to the streets to call for more democracy, better economic prospects and an end to corruption.

The reforms fall far short of the full constitutional monarchy many protesters were demanding and the movement had urged a boycott of Friday's vote.

Throughout a brief campaign, the new constitution was fiercely backed by Morocco's main political parties, unions, civic groups, religious leaders and media. The campaign was dominated by the "yes" side, with few signs of an organised "no" vote movement.

Pro-government newspapers hailed the vote Saturday, with Liberation praising the "massive participation and serene atmosphere" while Le Matin said the vote had been held with "serenity, enthusiasm and patriotic engagement."

Liberation praised voters who "chose to meet their date with history and give body and soul to the social and modernist project whose realisation all Morrocans aspire to."

Along with changes granting the prime minister more executive authority, the new constitution will reinforce the independence of the judiciary and enlarge parliament's role.

It will also remove a reference to the king as "sacred", though he will remain "Commander of the Faithful" and "inviolable".

The new constitution will also guarantee more rights to women and make Berber an official language along with Arabic -- the first time a north African country has granted official status to the region's indigenous language.

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