Disagreement over voting power
The Polisario only accepted in principle that people who had demonstrably lived in Western Sahara before the invasion and their descendants would be allowed to vote, based on a Spanish census from 1974. Morocco also demanded participation for the Moroccans who moved into the area after 1975 and during the ceasefire, which now constitute a large majority of the population. Both sides expected to win a vote according to the turnout they preferred. Minurso began a laborious interview process to distinguish “genuine” Western Saharans from immigrant Moroccans with or without Saharan credentials. The basic principle was that no one who could not demonstrate connection to the territory before 1975 would have the right to vote.
Both parties viewed the process with disbelief, which was constantly delayed. After long delays, it picked up speed again, after former US Secretary of State James Baker was appointed UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Western Sahara in 1997, with strong backing from the United States. Through the so-called Houston agreement the same year, Baker clarified which rules would apply to Minurso’s identification process. He made both parties promise once again that they would accept a referendum on independence, regardless of the outcome.
When the Minurso survey was completed in 1999, the result turned out to be close to the old Spanish census, with just over 85,000 documented Western Saharans in the electoral roll. The vast majority of Moroccans who applied for the right to vote had been rejected, as had a number of applicants from the Polisario refugee camp and Mauritania. As the electoral roll largely corresponded to the pre-1975 Saharan population, which was supposed to sympathize greatly with the Polisario, it was likely that such a vote would result in independence. Morocco then came up with 130,000 individual appeals, which effectively sank the entire process.
In 2001, the Polisario was so desperate that it declared that Morocco’s action was a breach of the ceasefire, and prepared for a return to armed struggle. The fighting was called off at the last minute, apparently after Algeria clarified its opposition to a new war.
The Baker Plan
The stalemate led to, among others, the United States beginning to try to find a compromise solution. The problem had become more burning as several oil companies began to take an interest in Western Sahara’s territorial waters. A UN statement in 2002 stated that the natural resources in Western Sahara belong to the people of Western Sahara, until the issue of self-determination is resolved. These resources must therefore be exploited in accordance with the interests of the people of Western Sahara and with their approval. As a result, Morocco’s right to sell fishing rights off the coast of Western Sahara has also been legally disputed.
James Baker now launched a new solution proposal. According to the so-called Baker Plan, Western Sahara would be governed as an autonomous Moroccan province for a period before the referendum, where most Moroccan settlers would be allowed to vote. Morocco supported the plan, which would probably result in a Moroccan victory, but the Polisario rejected it. The Security Council left the matter to chance.
In early 2003, Baker made minor adjustments to his idea. The new old plan, sometimes called “Baker II”, meant that the referendum would be held with an extended voting right. In addition to Minurso’s 85,000 documented Western Saharans, the Moroccan settlers and residents of the Polisario camps who could not document their Western Saharan identity before Minurso would also be allowed to vote. For a transitional period of at least five years before the referendum, Western Sahara would be governed as an autonomous region within Morocco, by authorities elected according to Minurso’s voting list, ie probably under strong influence from the Polisario.
The new plan was still very unfavorable for Polisario compared to the 1991 agreement, but it was no longer as obvious that Morocco would win the referendum. It rather depended on how it was thought that the Moroccan settlers of Saharan origin would act after five years of autonomy. Would they be loyal to the crown or support the independence movement?
Following American pressure, the movement changed footing and reluctantly accepted “Baker II”. The Security Council then unanimously adopted a resolution in support of the plan, in July 2003.
Now it was instead Morocco that refused. The new King Mohammed VI declared that he no longer intended to include independence among the options in a referendum, which had been the cornerstone of the peace process since 1991. Despite Baker’s proposal, the Security Council’s support chose both the United States and France to respect Morocco’s position. James Baker stated that he could not go any further, and resigned in June 2004. Thus, the peace process seemed completely locked, but Minurso remained in the territory and the ceasefire has remained in force.
In the spring of 2005, nationalist protests broke out in the capital El Aaiún and other Western Saharan cities, as well as in Saharan areas in southern Morocco. The demonstrations were quickly crushed by police but were the starting shot for a new wave of activism in the occupied territories.
In April 2007, Morocco submitted a proposal to the UN on autonomy for Western Sahara. The Polisario opposed with its own proposal, which was still based on a referendum, but promised certain guarantees for Morocco and the Moroccan settlers if Western Sahara became independent. However, the UN did not take a position on any of the plans, but only continues to call for negotiations that will lead to a “fair, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution that ensures the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara”.
Such negotiations have been organized between Morocco and the Polisario since 2007, mainly as a way of keeping the peace process alive. Until 2012, three rounds of talks were held, without results. After that, the conversations have been down.