Algerians snub vote on constitution aimed at ending protest movement

Abdelhafid Daamache with Philippe Agret in Tunis
·4 min read

Algerians on Sunday snubbed a vote on a revised constitution the regime hoped would neutralise a protest movement -- one which at its peak swept long-time president Abdelaziz Bouteflika from power.

With the "yes" camp almost certain to win, the only real question was how many would take part in a poll also seen as a bid to bolster Bouteflika's successor Abdelmadjid Tebboune, currently hospitalised overseas.

The final turnout was 23.7 percent, electoral commission chairman Mohamed Charfi said late Sunday, a historic low for a major election. Results are expected on Monday.

The Hirak protest movement had called for a boycott, dismissing the revised text as a "change of facade".

The youth-led movement launched vast demonstrations in early 2019 and kept them up for more than a year until the coronavirus pandemic forced their suspension.

Tebboune, elected last December on a record low turnout and keen to turn the page on the Hirak, has pitched the text as meeting its demands.

But observers have pointed out that the draft keeps key powers and appointments in the hands of the president.

If passed, it will be "the most authoritarian constitution in the entire Mediterranean", said constitutional researcher Massensen Cherbi of Sciences Po university in Paris.

State media had campaigned for a resounding "yes" vote to usher in a "new Algeria", with the "no" camp banned from holding meetings.

Tebboune on Saturday urged Algerians to vote for a "new era capable of fulfilling the hopes of the nation and the aspirations of our people for a strong, modern and democratic state".

The 74-year-old, a heavy smoker, is hospitalised in Germany amid reports of Covid-19 cases among his staff. Few details have been released on his condition.

- 'For my children' -

Voters were able to cast ballots at 61,000 polling stations across the country, which closed at 7:00 pm (1800 GMT).

While many have voiced apathy over the vote, some Algiers residents said they had backed the new text.

Mohamed Miloud Laaroussi, an 86-year-old former fighter sentenced to death during Algeria's war for liberation from France, said he had voted "for my children and my grandchildren".

"I did my duty during the war to liberate my country and I do it now for stability," the former boxer said.

Tebboune, rather than attacking the Hirak verbally, has described it as a "blessed, authentic popular movement".

But despite his conciliatory language, observers are sceptical. The way the document was written has raised eyebrows.

"The drafting and consultation process was highly controlled by the state," said Zaid al-Ali, a senior adviser on constitution building at International Idea. 

"It's hard to argue that the Hirak's demand for a fully inclusive debate on the state's constitution was respected."

And while the new text lists purported guarantees of social and economic rights, Ali says these promises are hollow.

Algeria, with a population of 44 million and vast oil reserves, has been battered by low crude prices and the coronavirus pandemic, further hurting a young population already suffering from spiralling unemployment.

- 'Optimistic' -

Not all young Algerians rejected the revised constitution.

"I voted 'yes' because I support change," said trader Abdennour Gueniche, 34, after casting his ballot in Algiers. "I'm optimistic about the future... President Tebboune has promised to give young people an important place."

Outside the capital, activists held isolated demonstrations and ripped up campaign posters, social media posts showed. In the traditionally restive Kabylie region, several booths were unable to open, local media reported.

Others, like Ahmed Mohand, a man in his 80s in a suburb of Algiers, chose not to vote. 

"There are too many divisions surrounding this project," he said.

To limit the spread of Covid-19, authorities restricted entry to polling stations to three people at a time, made mask-wearing mandatory and had curtains removed from booths to prevent voters from touching them.

"It's now the people's turn to speak," he said after casting his vote.

That rhetoric has been accompanied by a campaign of arrests against pro-Hirak activists, social media users and journalists, with around 90 currently behind bars, according to the CNLD, a prisoners' support group.

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