Algerian President Abdelmajid Tebboune was conspicuously absent from the voting in a referendum on amendments to a new constitution this week, despite having been promoting it since taking office a year ago.
But so were Algeria’s voters. According to the government-appointed election commission, 66.8 per cent of registered voters approved the amendments, contradicting earlier official figures of only 23.7 per cent, thought to be a more realistic reflection of the empty polling stations seen throughout the nation on voting day.
Tebboune, 75, had been flown to Germany four days before the referendum to be hospitalised for Covid-19. His controversial election in December 2019 amid a low voter turnout was the Algerian military’s perceived solution to ending the year-long hirak opposition movement’s massive street protests demanding the departure of the regime.
The unrest continued in response to what the largely leaderless hirak movement saw as an attempt to abort the opposition demonstrations and impose a continuation of the status quo, of which Tebboune, a former prime minister, is perceived to be a part.
The protests were put on hold due to coronavirus restrictions, enabling Tebboune to throw his weight behind constitutional amendments that he said would achieve the reforms the hirak movement had demanded. But critics say Algerian civil-society actors had been kept in the dark as the government drafted the changes.
“The hirak has never asked for constitutional changes,” said Algeria expert Dalia Ghanem of the Carnegie Middle East Centre. With a new constitution, she said, nothing would really change. “The changes concentrate all powers in the hands of the president, who is chosen by the military,” she added.
“The military remains the main locus of power in Algeria,” Ghanem said. “They’re doing what they’ve always done: place a man in the presidential palace with hyper powers and then control him.”
While the amendments limit the president’s tenure to two five-year terms in office, they also consolidate his power. The president remains the supreme leader of the army and grants himself the power to deploy Algerian troops for military operations abroad.
The new constitution gives the head of state the power to appoint the governor of the Algerian central bank, the chief justice of the country’s constitutional court, and four of its 12 members.
Article 84 of the constitution defines the role of the president as the primary protector of the state, while providing no guarantee of the separation of powers, observers say.
According to Jasper Hamann of the Morocco World News website, under the new constitution the president will still be able to overrule judges, decide when elections take place, and unilaterally sign and ratify international treaties.
“Tebboune will wield tremendous power over the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the state,” he wrote.
The president will continue to have the right to appoint and remove the prime minister, also the case under former arrangements. He will be able to “summon” parliament, indicating that the legislative branches of government will have little ability to rein in executive decisions.
“It appears that earlier references to ‘protecting the constitution’ in reality support the president’s ability to protect the powers and competences he enjoys,” Hamann added.
This is clear in the president’s constitutional right in Article 149 of the constitution that allows him to demand that parliament reconsider any law the head of state deems inappropriate.
Furthermore, the president will have the right, as mentioned in Article 105 of the constitution, to “appoint the prime minister” as well as direct him to prepare an “action plan” for the functioning of the government, as a way of preserving the status quo.
The vote on the amendments was held on the 66th anniversary of Algeria’s War of Independence from France. The draft document was published under an official emblem reading “November 1954 Liberation; November 2020 Change”.
Algerian Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad said the new constitution “will put our country on the right path after years of deviousness, mainly during the recent years under the gang,” a reference to former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s ruling clique.
The referendum’s results and the new constitution were both rejected by the hirak movement, which said the referendum was a façade and called for its boycott.
Despite the announced final results of the referendum, many believe the real turnout was the original 22.7 per cent, as announced by Election Committee Chief Mohamed Charfi. This is too low to legitimise the changes.
In a statement, the secular Algerian Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) Party said proceeding with the new constitution that had been “rejected by 87.3 per cent” of the electorate would bring chaos to Algeria.
The hirak protest movement began in February 2019 intending to reject then Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth presidential term despite his poor health.
Bouteflika finally resigned in April, leaving the country without a president until Tebboune’s election eight months later. The protest movement also rejected these elections, saying that they had been held under the watch of the same institutions and mechanisms of the Bouteflika military-backed regime.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly