Algeria votes on tweaked constitution aimed at ending protest movement

Algeria's protest movement brought down a president -- now, it is urging a boycott of a constitutional referendum touted by another president as heralding a 'New Algeria' - AFP
Algeria’s protest movement brought down a president — now, it is urging a boycott of a constitutional referendum touted by another president as heralding a ‘New Algeria’ – AFP

Algerians were set to vote Sunday on a revised constitution the regime hopes will finally neutralise a protest movement which at its peak last year swept longtime president Abdelaziz Bouteflika from power, AFP reported

Bouteflika’s successor Abdelmadjid Tebboune, currently hospitalised overseas, has pitched the text as meeting the demands of the Hirak, a movement that staged vast weekly demonstrations for more than a year, until the coronavirus pandemic stopped rallies.

But despite a determined government media campaign for a resounding “yes” vote to usher in a “new Algeria”, observers say the document offers little new.

Tebboune has placed Sunday’s referendum at the forefront of efforts to turn the page on the Hirak movement.

And after a campaign that saw the “yes” camp dominate state-backed media coverage and supporters of a “no” vote banned from holding meetings, few observers doubt that the text will pass.

The key question is how many people vote.

Tebboune said Saturday Algerians will once again “have a rendezvous with history” to bring in a “new era capable of fulfilling the hopes of the nation and the aspirations of our people for a strong, modern and democratic state”.

Seen by opponents as an old-school regime insider, Tebboune came to power following a December 2019 presidential poll marred by record abstentionism.

The Hirak movement led calls for a boycott of that election, and even official data put the turnout at less than 40 percent.

The 74-year-old president is hospitalised in Germany amid reports of Covid-19 cases among his staff, and few details have been released on his condition.

Experts say the referendum is partly a bid for a more convincing validation at the ballot box.

Rather than attacking the youth-led Hirak, Tebboune has ostensibly reached out to it, describing it as a “blessed, authentic popular movement” and arguing that the revised constitution meets its demands.

But despite his conciliatory language, many observers are sceptical, especially given how the document was written.

“The drafting and consultation process was highly controlled by the state,” said Zaid al-Ali, an expert on constitutions in the Arab world. “It’s hard to argue that the Hirak’s demands for a fully inclusive debate on the state’s constitution was respected.”

Algeria, with a population of 44 million and vast oil reserves, has been battered by low crude prices and the coronavirus pandemic, further hurting a young population already suffering from spiraling unemployment.

While many have expressed apathy over Sunday’s vote, government spokesman and Minister of Communications Ammar Belhimer has predicted that people will “flock” to the polls “to lay a new stone in the process of nation-building and check the maneuvers of Algeria’s enemies.”