Thursday, July 5, 2007

Democracy again: Talking about Reform

The leaving-Fes update: one week and counting...eek! As regards my imminent departure, I'm past denial and into bargaining - pray, knock on wood, cross your fingers or do whatever you do on Monday for me as I MIGHT have found a way to come back. For now, it's back to democracy and security.

Part Two: The First Dialogue
Saturday morning we broke into small groups (about 16 people each) for discussion sessions. The first hour and a half was devoted to "democratic reform in Morocco," a chance to define democratic ideals and look at how such a government might work here, as well as the US role in promoting democracy.

My notes:
-Power in the hands of popularly elected leaders
-Talk of a constitution - but what about the fact that kings have ruled for centuries (need for GRADUAL change)
-Introduction of checks and balances? Increase accountability
-Reform Parliament FIRST
-Opening of media

The idea that any change will happen very slowly was immediately evident. The king is not universally loved (see nickname "sa ma-jet-ski"), but the Parliament doesn't exactly have anyone's trust either. Mohammed VI has reformed things (women's rights, for example) and is sometimes seen as less self-interested than elected representatives. In addition to holding all political power, he's also a direct descendent of the Prophet and is the leader of the faithful in Morocco. Almost no one wants to depose him, and very few want to relegate him to entirely ceremonial status. The most common proposal looks like a modified American system in which the king would be the executive, with real power but also checks and accountability (no Bush jokes, please).

This devolved into a complaints session about the uselessness of the current elected officials, particularly the PJD. They aren't islamist because explicitly religious parties banned, but they still campaign to a conservative religious base and is more locally active than other parties, particularly in rural areas. One participant described it, "They go into the villages and give a big donation to the mosque at Eid and that's why people vote for them, because they don't read the platforms and don't know better." My notes at this point, "well, so do Republicans."

The educated urban Moroccans are definitely afraid of this success and their response is generally to point to the PJD and the 40+% illiteracy rate as evidence that real democracy won't work until the population as a whole is better educated and able to vote on real issues rather than responding to simple pandering. I kept wanting to point out that in the US we have an educated populace and we still tend to elect the taller candidate - and that "elections on issues alone" is utopian pie-in-the-sky dreaming - if you wait for the perfect democracy you'll never get one at all. Don't worry, I mostly kept my jaded sarcasm to myself, or at least my notes.

The main buzzwords we kept returning to were inclusiveness and accountability. Part of why the PJD is popular in rural areas is that many other parties don't bother to campaign there. Youth involvement is distressingly low (sound familiar?), while women's outreach sections tend to be more show than substance. Government business is often conducted in French, which half the country doesn't speak, or Arabic, which still isn't universal (a significant percentage, particularly in rural areas, speak Tamazigh). Elected representatives don't have the will or the money to return to their constituencies regularly, or they win the seat and its salary but never even bother to show up in Rabat. Because the king often steps in and takes the rein on controversial questions, there's little incentive for compromise between the parties, who fight until Mohammed VI picks a side and resolves the conflict.

A moderator reminded us that we couldn't just list problems and obstacles, that we were supposed to propose solutions, and we began brainstorming. Our suggestions (with my added commentary) were:

The Moroccan government should promote the creation of local, organic news media (such as community radio programming) in local languages. (Maybe if the people know what's happening in Rabat, they'll be more inclined to respond).

Morocco should relax press restrictions so as to allow for greater dissent (censorship is still a problem if you want to criticize the king, for example)

The Moroccan Parliament should stress accountability through a program tracking members voting records, a written code of legislator conduct and the creation of contracts between individual representatives and their constituencies. It should also tie salary to attendance and consider the creation of an accountability committee to propose further reforms.

US democracy-promotion efforts should cooperate with international partners and create clear objectives for local organizations and individual participation in order to encourage accountability, track actual progress, and create a self-sustaning system.


Laroussi said...

Almost no one wants to depose him, and very few want to relegate him to entirely ceremonial status, you write about Mohammed VI in your summary of the panel talks.

I would say that it is not surprising at all that very few talked about deposing the king or turning him into a more symbolic figure since it is a crime according to the Moroccan constitution to question the monarchy and the king.

People go to jail for speaking out openly against the king or in favor of a republic or a presidential system.

So, if even one person said something against the king at the panel you attended, then that was really courageous and worth support.

Morocco is not a democracy with freedom of expression like you are used to from the USA.

Morocco is a country where the highest leader in the country, the king, is not elected by the people or anyone else for that matter.

Such countries tend to be called dictatorships when they are situated in other parts of the world.

Well, Morocco is a "lightweight dictatorship" with a fair amount of freedom. As long as you do not criticize the king, the religion, or the country's territorial integrity, that is it's occupation of Western Sahara.

Solution? Turn the country into a republic or at least a constitutional monarchy like Belgium, Denmark or other old kingdoms. That would give a good start for real democratic reforms in a country that so desperately needs it.

KEP said...

I understand your point very well. However, even being aware of the laws, I believe that I have heard some honest, frank opinions from Moroccan friends.

What they seem to agree on is that democratic institutions (like the parliament) need real power, that the king needs to share control with a representative system. Some do see this as the first step to a ceremonial monarchy, while others see the king continuing to serve as an executive sharing power with a legislature indefinitely. I'm not discounting the restrictions on free speech on this topic - just trying to extrapolate from a few private conversations. The king does at least have the goodwill of most of the people in exchange for those freedoms he does grant.

The peoples' respect (and my own support) for his reforms and modernization, isn't enough, though. Even the most respectful of the monarchy would like some stronger voice and I don't believe that encouraging democratic reforms must mean questioning the monarchy. It's a question without an easy answer, and any progress will require a delicate balance. Still, if any old-school monarchy can transition to a representative government, I do believe that Morocco can do it.

Meanwhile, free speech is beginning to improve. I won't say the Journal Hebdo is out of the woods yet, but they publish a lot of critical things and have survived thus far - Mohammed VI is already better than his father, and I hope that this will also improve.

Hope with me :)

Laroussi said...

In order for someone with a great deal of power to let go of this, there is almost always need for external pressure. And in the case of Morocco, little if any pressure is put on the monarch Mohammed VI to renounce any of his power.

You write that you "don't believe that encouraging democratic reforms must mean questioning the monarchy".

I am a bit surprised to hear that from an American, given your constitutional history.

You really believe there can be democracy with a monarch that has absolute powers in various fields, as for example appointing the prime minister and ruling by decrees?

As I said earlier, we normally do not call states with such governance democracies, we call them dictatorships - however friendly, cute and exotic they seem.

Surely Morocco can become a democracy some day, but there is a long way to go and changes needs to be done in the constitution in order to guarantee that power derives from the people in the country and not some autocratic monarch.

If that happens, I am all with you in your hopes. If not, I think there is a gloomy future ahead for the people of Morocco.

The tourists and companies however will surely have a good time independent of the constitutional system of the country...

You do know that for example Freedom House ranks Morocco among the worst countries in the world when it comes to political freedom?

Read their latest report on Morocco. Morocco gets five points on political freedom, where 1 point is good and 5 the worst. About the same ranking as Cuba and Zimbabwe...

KEP said...

hello again -

What I meant by democratic reform without ending monarchy is less an American-style republic than a British-inspired Parliament. The Queen still exists, but has been relegated to a sort of ornamental status, as have many European monarchs. It WOULD take great international pressure to convince Mohammed VI that life is better as a figurehead than as a leader, and it WILL be a long time before anyone exerts such pressure (he is too good a democratic partner for the Western countries who fear that the Moroccan voters might not be anywhere near as friendly to US interests). I don't want to candy-coat anything.

Still, compared to Zimbabwe or Cuba, I still think that Moroccans are better prepared for changes and improvements. The present system is flawed but I maintain that it is not flawed beyond the possibility of reform. made a good point in light of the Nichane mess that censorship is losing effectiveness in a time when confiscating one editorial resulted in its being published and translated on the Web for a much wider audience. The American Bar Association has chosen Morocco as a target country for its Rule of Law initiative because they recognize that reform is in order and also believe that it is a country where such reforms can take hold.