Algerian referendum looms as test for president and opposition

Lamine Chikhi
·4 min read
People walk past the building of the lower parliament chamber in Algiers
People walk past the building of the lower parliament chamber in Algiers

By Lamine Chikhi

ALGIERS (Reuters) - A vote on a new constitution in Algeria in November marks a turning point for a country that has been rocked by huge protests and political upheaval and which is now struggling to move on from the tumult.

For President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, adoption of the charter would be a welcome new beginning after his predecessor and many top officials were toppled by mass demonstrations last year.

For the "Hirak" opposition movement, the Nov. 1 referendum will show what clout it still has, after its protests ended the 20-year rule of veteran leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika but failed to achieve its ambitions of deeper change.

The weekly mass protests, which sought to sweep away the entire ruling elite, were put on hold when the coronavirus pandemic reached the north African country in March.

Abdelaziz Djerad, the prime minister appointed by Tebboune in January, recently told parliament the referendum should be a "day for consensus" among all Algerians.

It fits with Tebboune's narrative of the mass demonstrations as a moment of national renewal that ousted corrupt officials and, its ends achieved, is now over.

"Hirak demands are in the new constitution. It is important to pass it," Abdelhamid Si Afif, a senior ruling party member, told Reuters.

However, though it is now six months since they last paraded through the boulevards of central Algiers, prominent figures in the leaderless opposition do not see it Tebboune's way.

Their goal was to force from power the entire generation of officials that has ruled since independence in 1963, along with the military and security figures in the background who, they say, pull the strings.

Influential people in the Hirak, such as Islam Benatia, see the constitution as doing little to answer their demands and the referendum as a tactic to sideline their movement.

"We are in a state of obstruction. There is a lack of consensus over the constitution that will be submitted to referendum without any real debate," he said.

The disquiet among Hirak activists was only strengthened on Tuesday when an appeals court confirmed the jailing of journalist Khaled Drareni, only reducing his sentence from three years to two, for his role in the protests.

Several other prominent Hirak supporters have also been imprisoned. Some in the movement see it as a signal from the authorities that they will not tolerate any resumption of protests.

Internally, Hirak supporters seem unsure whether to push for more street demonstrations or seek other ways of pressing their case.

TURNOUT KEY

Tebboune's proposed constitution gives parliament more rights to open inquiries into government work and limits the president to two terms in office.

It has passed a vote in parliament despite some opposition. "We boycotted the vote... because there has been no debate. It is unacceptable to pass it without discussion," said Lakhdar Benkhelaf, a leading member of the Front for Justice and Development, an Islamist party.

Many street protesters regard the constitution as irrelevant in any case - what matters is not so much the laws as they are written, they say, as who enforces them and how.

It all points to a vote in November much like that which took place in December when Tebboune was elected. The Hirak also opposed that vote, arguing that no election could be fair until the ruling elite was swept from power and the military stepped back from politics.

However, despite a turnout of only 40% according to official figures, Tebboune won an outright majority, and even before the pandemic shut down the protests, witnesses attending them said that the numbers taking part had started to fall.

The courts meanwhile jailed a succession of once senior officials on corruption charges, while the ageing head of the military, the bete noire of some protesters, died suddenly of a heart attack.

It allowed Tebboune to present his administration, though it was rejected by the protesters, as a new broom and the referendum as the next stage in the process of reform.

"If turnout is high it would give Tebboune the needed political strength to move forward," said political analyst Farid Ferrahi.

On the streets, it is far from clear whether many Algerians will choose to vote. Mohamed Khelafi, a 29-year-old taxi driver who has not worked in months because of the lockdown, said improving living conditions should be the priority.

"I don't care about politics or voting. I am too busy with how to secure a daily income," he said.

(Reporting By Lamine Chikhi, editing by Angus McDowall and William Maclean)