Algeria's constitutional referendum: Key takeaways

AFP , Thursday 29 Oct 2020

The proposed reforms amount to the umpteenth revisions of a constitution that came into being in 1996

In this Friday, Dec. 13, 2019 file photo, newly elected Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune gestures during a press conference in Algiers. AP.

Algerians go to the polls on Sunday to vote in a constitutional referendum, a flagship initiative of President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, purportedly to honour the demands of a protest movement.

The proposed reforms amount to the umpteenth revisions of a constitution that came into being in 1996, but what are the most significant elements of the new text?

'New Algeria'

The preamble to the new document lays claim to making good on the "aspirations for profound political and social changes for the building of a new Algeria as expressed peacefully" by the Hirak protest movement.

Hirak burst onto the scene in February 2019, as tens of thousands protested against Abdelaziz Bouteflika's bid for a fifth term -- a mobilisation that forced the then-president to resign two months later, when rallies swelled into the hundreds of thousands.

Ostensibly, the changes also seek to unpick provisions tailored to suit Bouteflika's needs.

But Hirak leaders dismiss the exercise as window dressing by an entrenched elite that in December brought its own man -- Tebboune, one of Bouteflika's prime ministers -- to power in an election marred by a record low turnout.

Rights & freedoms

The updated constitution contains extended material on rights and freedoms, including the right to form parties and unions, as well as freedom to trade and invest.

Only the judiciary can prohibit press activity and dissolve any party or association, purportedly ruling out any restrictions or prior censorship.

The new document also contains more comprehensive articles on women's rights and forbids any attempt to reverse the status of tamazight, the Berber dialect, as an official national language.

But analysts say much of the new material on rights is vague or offset by caveats elsewhere.

Rights group Amnesty International has pointed to a "relentless campaign of arbitrary arrests and a crackdown on activists", which "risk undermining the credibility" of the constitutional reform.

President & army

Analysts also argue that the changes boost the already powerful army's influence over Algerian politics.

The proposed article 30 states that the "army defends the vital and strategic interests of the country," while there are several other references to the military, an institution lauded by Tebboune as the country's "backbone".

Upon winning power in December, Tebboune said the constitutional changes would reduce presidential powers.

The document does explicitly restrict presidents to two five-year terms -- an unalterable limitation -- and requires the president to name a prime minister from the biggest parliamentary party, even if that party is not his own.

But the ruling party remains dominant and the head of state will also continue to choose the cabinet, a third of the senate, security chiefs and judges, among other key posts.

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