Algerian constitutional reforms approved in low-turnout referendum

Only 23.7 percent of the eligible voters exercised their franchise in the referendum. The Hirak protesters whose mobilization had led to the overthrow of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika had called for a boycott

November 04, 2020 by Peoples Dispatch
Credit: Pledge Times

Amid an uniquely low voter turnout of 23.7 percent, Algerians voted in favor of approving changes to the constitution, the head of the National Independent Elections Authority (ANIE), Mohamed Charfi, said at a news conference on Monday, November 2, 2020.

The reforms included limiting the number of presidential terms to two, expanding the powers of the president, the parliament and the judiciary, and allowing the Algerian military to intervene and participate in wars and military conflicts outside of Algeria’s borders. According to various media reports, more than 24 million voters were eligible to vote in the referendum. The vote was passed with 66.8 percent of total votes in favor. But with less than 1 of every 4 registered voters casting their vote, it effectively meant that only 15.8 percent voted in favor of the constitutional reforms.

The constitutional referendum was strongly opposed by many in the opposition, including Algeria’s anti-government protest movement, Hirak. The Hirak protesters have been demanding, for more than a year, political, economic and social reforms to deal with issues plaguing the country such as corruption, poverty, unemployment and social and regional marginalization. Rejecting the constitutional changes, Hirak protesters had advocated for a mass boycott of the referendum, calling the changes grossly inadequate and hollow when it comes to meeting their demands. They especially highlighted the issue of the Algerian military’s interference in national politics. Another key issue they flagged was the continued participation in the country’s governance of the political and business elite belonging to the regime of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The former president was overthrown in 2019 following months of protest but his regime has remained more or less intact.

The Hirak protesters and others in opposition have accused the government of engineering a power-grab, with some calling it the “most authoritarian constitution in the entire Mediterranean.”

The historically low voter turnout, indicative of the absence of enthusiasm, was held by the Hirak movement and its supporters as being vindication of their distrust and opposition to the constitutional changes. The turnout was more than 16 percent lower than even the lowly 40 percent that the presidential elections of December 2019 received, the lowest since Algeria gained independence from France in 1962. The government had proposed these constitutional reforms in the parliament in September this year, following which the parliament voted in favor of approving the changes pending a national referendum.

Said Salhi, deputy president of the Algerian Human Rights League, hailing the low turnout as a “victory for the  Hirak movement”, in a tweet said that the regime of current president Abdelmadjid Tebboune must now “take note of its failure and reconsider the roadmap.” He also stressed that the “only solution is the process of democratic transition”, referencing the various undemocratic, arbitrary and illegal measures that the government had taken to hold the referendum as well as in the crackdown in the last few months against Hirak members and supporters in an attempt to silence any criticism of the government.

The government has targeted the Hirak specifically by arresting many prominent figures of the movement, including activists, bloggers, lawyers and journalists and slapping them with criminal charges to engage them in lengthy and frivolous show trials and legal battles, at the end of which, the defendants are slapped with long term prison sentences and hefty fines. Even for the constitutional referendum, the government had banned opposition members from campaigning and holding public meetings, despite past assurances by authorities that anyone would be free to campaign as they wish regardless of their position on the constitutional changes.