Paris (Brussels Morning) A set of constitutional reforms passed in Algeria at the weekend in a referendum that saw a very low turnout seems to represent a setback for attempts to address growing uncertainty in the country. Meanwhile, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, 74, is being treated for Covid-19 in a German hospital.
Sunday’s referendum aimed at addressing demands of the Hirak pro-democracy movement which forced Abdelazizi Bouteflika from power last year. However, participation was the lowest since the 1962 referendum of independence, with a turnout of only 23.7% of registered voters.
Of those who did vote, 66.8% were in favour of the constitutional changes President Tebboune had committed to in efforts to quell discontent. The regime had hailed the attempts at reform as the foundation for a “new Algeria”, thus reinforcing the President’s legitimacy, which had been tarnished by last December’s disputed presidential election.
Mohamed Charfi, head of the National Independent Elections Authority, called the referendum procedure “indisputably clean” and blamed the low turnout on the coronavirus pandemic, dismissing allegations that the results lack legitimacy because of the low voter turnout, RFI reported.
The reforms include a limit on presidential terms, more transparency in the administration of public funds, greater minority rights and a framework for freedom of expression and free media. But as Bloomberg points out, the amendments reinforce the president’s power and expand the influence of the military authority.
Although the reforms aim at opening up society in terms of civil liberties, the critics say the changes fall well short of the deep changes needed. They see the reform package as an attempt by the regime to silence the Hirak partisans with the least possible effort. For Dalia Ghanem, a resident scholar at Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, “the referendum was the regime’s way to put an end to the protests”.
The Hirak movement, which had called for an international boycott, hailed the minimal turnout as a victory against the regime. The protest movement continues with demands for a constituent assembly, an independent judiciary and fairer distribution of the nation’s wealth. Said Salhi, deputy president of the Algerian Human Rights League, has called for democratic reform: “The regime must take note of its failure and reconsider its roadmap,” he tweeted. “The process of democratic transition is the solution.”
The system is not changing, just some faces
According to reporting in Algiers by Le Monde, the minority that headed to the ballots on Sunday consisted mainly of older people, loyal to the regime and willing to give the new president the opportunity to stabilise the country following 18 months of turbulence. Others only chose to vote for bureaucratic reasons, as proof of vote may facilitate certain administrative procedures. Thus analysts believe that the low turnout may jeopardise the legitimacy of the amendments to the country’s constitution.
The timing of the referendum is highly symbolic. It took place on 1 November, which commemorates the beginning of the Algerian 1954-1962 war for independence from France. According to Al-Monitor one campaign slogan read “November 1954: Liberation. November 2020: Change”.
But the majority of the population doesn’t seem to have any illusions about credible change in the country. “The system is not changing, just a few faces. It will be same just as previously” Le Monde was told in Algiers. The daily Al-Watan newspaper described the campaign as a “paroxysm of lack of popular interest”, stating that regime officials had been “preaching in the wilderness”. In harsher terms, Foreign Policy stressed that “the country’s aged authoritarians continue to use the mimicry of democratic procedure to fake reform”.
In contrast, Algeria’s state-sanctioned media presented the ballot as the ultimate move towards a new era, safeguarded by the regime and inspired by Hirak. “It is undoubtedly a reconciliation of Algeria with its values inspired by November  and reinforced by young people’s attachment to the ideals of the patriotic Hirak [movement]”, the official daily El Moudjahid wrote on Sunday.
Ambiguity on the horizon
The post-referendum period seems as uncertain as before. Protests have been limited due to Covid-19 measures while the number of new cases and hospitalisations are on the rise. Since Algeria’s first corona case in February, health officials have registered more than 55,000 cases and nearly 2,000 deaths from the virus, Al-Monitor reported.
Furthermore, President Tebboune received treatment in Germany for the past week and so was absent from the country at the time of the referendum. The presidency announced on Tuesday that he had tested positive for coronavirus after being in contact with a number of close associates who also presented symptoms. Al-Monitor reported that Tebboune, a heavy smoker, is responding to treatment and gradually improving.
Next month the National Assembly will be dissolved ahead of parliamentary elections, but there is uncertainty over how the various political factions will prepare for the elections. According to Le Monde, it is not clear what stance the pro-democracy movement will now adopt. The Hirak movement has so far refused to organise hierarchically, but any moves towards formal organisation would create a structured political opposition force. For that to happen, the opposition would have to channel “the political energy that once was in the streets of Algiers and draft concrete achievable demands”, Dalia Ghanem of the Carnegie Middle East Center said. At the other end of the spectrum, the country’s Islamist movement may choose to get involved in the election campaign, having called for rejecting the reforms as too ”secular” for their liking.
France remains supportive of and committed to the reforms promised by the regime, as the spokeswoman of the French Foreign Ministry Agnès von der Mühll underlined. She offered no further comments on the result of the referendum. The newspaper L’Orient Le Jour quoted Minister of Defence Jean-Yves Le Drian prior to the ballot as saying that it was “up to the Algerians and them only, to translate the aspirations of the movement into a political vision and into institutions apt to realise them”.