Stretching from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic Ocean, the size of California and the population of Canada, Morocco is not an easy country to read.

It is modern and feudal, progressive and deeply conservative, old and young.  Its King, Mohammed VI, is well educated, and seemingly prepared to reform his country, but is at the head of a very traditional culture and organisation that is wary of change.  As in monarchies of other times, he heads an aristocracy that clings to power and privilege, and through holding companies and a centrally controlled political network remains at once economically rich and politically powerful.

Morocco’s population is growing rapidly, and is a young country.  As in the rest of North Africa and the Arab world, its urban youth are better educated than in the past, but rates of unemployment are high, as is deep poverty both in the cities and the countryside.  When the Arab Spring began in Tunisia with a burst of flame in January, it did not take long for it to find dry grass in Morocco.  The February 20th movement was born.

As in many Arab capitals, it was a movement of young people, adept at social media, connecting through cell-phones, the internet, texts, twitters and facebook.  But its Moroccan quality was undeniable – it wanted reform, not revolution.  It was not anti-monarchy.  It wanted the monarchy to accept change.

The king seemed to get the message, and his advisors produced a constitution that students of Canadian history would understand.   The power of the Family Compact would be reduced.  Parliament, and not the king, would decide who would be Prime Minister.  The government would have to be accountable to the National Assembly.
But the similarity ends there, because the “King’s Constitution” has left most of his power and privileges intact.  In a quickly called referendum the people endorsed the change, and parliamentary elections were moved up to November 25, 2011.

While the recently held election in Tunisia was marked by widespread debate, mobilisation of the public, and high participation, nothing could be further from the case in Morocco.  When I arrived on Wednesday to join the 40 strong delegation from the National Democratic Institute, I was struck by the absence of any signs, on the roads or streets.  Visiting with party leaders who faced an election the very next day, they seemed remarkably sanguine, with scores of men of all ages hanging around with apparently little to do.  No rallies, but leaflets were strewn around the streets by people paid to “distribute” them.  An odd sight.  The only signs of advertising were a few public spaces where the symbols of the many parties were neatly displayed.

Election day itself was equally quiet.  As an international observer I was received politely, even warmly, allowed to ask questions, watch the balloting.  The NDI group was spread far and wide throughout the country, and in our debriefing the day after the election heard the same thing:  as a matter of form, the election was well run.  There were no signs of overt intimidation or conflict in the polling stations.  The count was conducted impeccably, if laboriously.

But the substance was something else.  There were no long lineups to vote, but a steady trickle that produced about a 45 percent turnout of those registered.  But many millions of people did not bother to register, and of those who voted as many as a third in some polls chose to spoil their ballots.  And from what I saw in the poll where I watched the counting, the spoiling was a vigorous act – with bold “x’s” often accompanied by profanity or “personne” written across the colourful ballot.

The Party of Justice and Development is well ahead in the cities, but “none of the above” is arguably even further ahead.  Many headlines speak of a victory for a “moderate Islamist” party, but this misses the point that Moroccans remain, indifferent, skeptical and in many cases still angry.

One of my fellow observers rightly noted that “walking around money” and low turnouts were not unknown in our own countries, and that we had to be careful not to preach a standard that no one has really reached.  But we should be careful to avoid the platitude that all is well with the King’s reforms, and that life will go on without incident.

The February 20th movement will be back out on the street.  Their call for a boycott was not wholly unsuccessful, when one considers the unregistered, the non-voting, and the spoiled ballots.  About a fifth of Moroccans actually picked a party.

It will be up to the elected parties and the King himself to show that they get the message that reform has only just begun.  Business as usual won’t work, and what happens after the election is even more important than the event itself.

Bob Rae is a former member of Parliament and former premier of Ontario.