Algeria approves constitutional reforms in referendum

Algeria referendum
The Hirak movement has been active in Algeria since early 2019, and calls for wide reforms. Source: Titouhwayne (via. Wikimedia Commons)
Algeria has approved a referendum proposing constitutional reforms, though the referendum's legitimacy was overshadowed by very low turnout.

By Tom Kingsbury | Political Editor

A referendum on constitutional reforms in Algeria has passed, after a November 1 vote. The referendum’s turnout was a record low though, at just 23.7%, and the referendum has received criticism for not going far enough to address the systemic reforms demanded by Algerian protesters in recent years.

The referendum put forward issues the Algerian government said would meet the demands of Hirak, a protest movement which was sparked in 2019 after ousted President Abdelaziz Bouteflika ran for a fifth consecutive term in office, after taking power in 1999.

It proposed the re-enactments of term limits – removed under Bouteflika – setting the maximum amount of terms a president can serve at two. It set the same limit on terms for Members of Parliament.

The referendum also proposed a new anti-corruption unit, and will oblige public institutions to ensure the freedom of Algeria’s active independent press.

Why was the referendum result controversial?

With changes enacted that furthered freedom of press and sought to tackle corruption, the referendum has been touted by the government as positive progress for Algeria.

But critics, including Hirak, say the referendum’s reforms simply did not go far enough. Protesters have been calling for systemic change for over a year now, and some argue the referendum is an attempt to quell further calls for change.

Hirak members were also not involved in the drafting of the amendments, and feel they have been not been fully recognised.

The president maintains significant veto powers over Algeria’s legislature, an ability some feel undermines the Algerian government’s balance of power. The president can demand a re-reading of a bill in parliament, which would need a two-thirds majority to overrule.

He also has what some refer to as an ‘indirect veto’ in the Algerian senate, which he appointed a third of, and a three-quarters majority is needed to pass a law.

The referendum also did nothing to counteract the president’s influence over the judiciary, which he is free to appoint without parliamentary approval.

“So the president is directly involved in the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government”, said former MP and prominent lawyer Mustapha Bouchachi. “What’s more, Tebboune would also be in charge of all regulatory bodies, including those responsible for auditing government expenditure.

“This constitution gives the president the powers of an emperor.”

Another factor that has cast a shadow over the referendum is the dismal turnout, which undermines the legitimacy of the result. Although 68.8% voted ‘yes’, given that less than a quarter of the electorate actually voted, the proportion that approved the result is just over 16%.

And out of the votes that were made, over 10% of them were invalid or blank.

The low turnout has been attributed by some to a second wave of coronavirus breaking out in Algeria, along with a lack of enthusiasm for the referendum.

Algeria’s president, who is currently receiving treatment for an undisclosed illness in Germany, was elected with the previous record low turnout in Algeria. Before becoming ill, he had isolated after a positive COVID-19 test from one of his colleagues.

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