Morocco’s Autonomy Plan for Sahara Offers Exclusive Legislative Powers to Region – Spanish Expert

The autonomy initiative presented by Morocco for the Sahara offers exclusive legislative powers to the Region, said Professor of Political Science at the University of Barcelona, Joan-Josep Vallbé, noting that the Moroccan plan proposes to establish a list of areas of exclusive competence of both the central government and the region. Speaking at an international research seminar organized by the Permanent Mission of Morocco to the UN, Vallbé noted that the legislative power of the region belongs to the regional parliament, which exercises the legislative function in full autonomy, without interference from the central government. Comparing the Moroccan initiative to the experience of autonomy in the Canary Islands, which dates back to 1982, the Spanish expert highlighted the guarantees offered in Article 19 of the Moroccan initiative, particularly in terms of active participation of local populations and adequate representation of women. The Spanish expert further noting that the first stage of a credible decentralization process must include a well-defined list of competences assigned to the regions and the central state, reviewing the major reforms that the Canary Islands have undergone in 1996 and 2018. He explained that in the case of Spain, Article 148.1 of the constitution assigns a first set of competences to the regions, while Article 149 defines another set exclusively for the central state, although neither list is exhaustive and therefore other competences could be taken on by both levels of government in the future. After pointing out that the Moroccan initiative specifies in its Article 12 the political areas over which the institutions of the Sahara region would exercise powers, the speaker considered it important to note that the powers defined by this same article cover a wide range of issues, ranging from the organization of local government within the boundaries of the region to key aspects of political power such as the ability to establish its own budget and taxation and pursue its own policy in areas such as infrastructure, energy, transportation, health, education, industry or environmental protection. He said that Article 12 states that the Sahara autonomous region shall exercise powers over a list of competencies, but does not specify to what extent these powers will be exclusive to the autonomous region or shared in some way with the central state – for example, through the approval of framework legislation, suggesting that this will be refined and clarified during the negotiation in the political process of the round-tables. In addition, he detailed other functions of the Sahara Parliament, such as which party holds the legislative initiative and to what extent the executive and legislative branches have veto power during the legislative process. Regarding the balance of power between the regional executive and legislative branches, he noted that the Canary Islands model tends to give the executive more control, because once the Prime Minister is elected, the executive ultimately holds most legislative initiatives, although legislative control mechanisms such as votes of confidence or censure can give the legislature the ability to check the power of the executive. He suggested that the form of these inter-power checks still needs to be clarified in the Moroccan Initiative as it is negotiated by the parties. Regarding the constitutional control of legislation, he noted that Article 24 of the Moroccan initiative for the Sahara region states that “laws, regulations and court decisions issued by the bodies of the autonomous region of the Sahara must be consistent with the autonomy statute of the region and the Constitution of the Kingdom.” He deemed it necessary to provide more details on the particular mechanism by which decisions will be taken on the conformity of regional legislation with the Constitution of the Kingdom. The professor of political science at the University of Barcelona, moreover, indicated that in the case of Spain, the choice was made to the federal arbiter in the form of a Constitutional Court with the exclusive power to annul legislative acts that violate the Constitution, which also includes the Statutes of Autonomy of all regions. Similarly, if the autonomy statute of the Sahara autonomous region is considered an integral part of the constitutional corpus of the Kingdom of Morocco, the constitutionality review should include a mechanism through which the autonomous region’s institutions can defend its integrity when national legislation erodes it, he explained. He concluded that the objective of the Moroccan Initiative is not to address every detail of the organization of the decentralization process, but it provides very relevant points towards an advanced level of decentralization for the Sahara autonomous region, “which will ultimately be shaped by the negotiation of the final agreement between the parties.” Chaired by Marc Finaud, Senior Advisor at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, this international research seminar was led by eminent experts, researchers and academics from Switzerland, France, Spain, the United States and Mauritius. It was attended by about fifty diplomats, including several ambassadors in New York, senior UN officials and media accredited to the United Nations. This meeting offered the opportunity to compare the autonomy initiative proposed by the Kingdom of Morocco for the Sahara region with other autonomy experiences in the world, especially in terms of devolution of legislative powers in autonomous regions. International experts had the opportunity to share experiences from the Canary Islands, New Caledonia, Puerto Rico and Rodrigues Island. Referring to the aspect related to the election of members of parliament, the expert noted that in the case of the Canary Islands, elements such as electoral thresholds and the number and size of constituencies determine the entire proportionality of the electoral system. “This, in turn, is essential to produce a type of representation where all sectors of society can feel as fair and fully democratic,” he said. Vallbé pointed out that Article 19 of the Initiative stipulates that members of the Sahara Parliament will be elected by universal suffrage, saying that further details on the electoral system could help ensure that fair representation results from such elections. Regarding the internal organization of the parliament and its relationship with the region’s executive authority, the expert noted that Article 20 of the Moroccan initiative refers to a parliamentary model in which the head of government (the regional prime minister) will be elected by the regional parliament, stressing that this is a model similar to that of the Spanish regions.