Algiers – For the second time since he came to power nearly two decades ago, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika will amend the country’s constitution.
After five years of consultations, which mostly took place behind closed doors, the long-awaited constitutional reforms package is likely to be passed this week by Algeria’s Assembly and Senate. Both legislative chambers are controlled by the ruling National Front for Liberation (FLN).
Because of Bouteflika’s poor health, the long-serving Algerian president has not actively campaigned for these changes. The 78-year-old suffered a stroke in April 2013 and has since been bound to a wheelchair, making only brief appearances in public and meeting foreign leaders at his private residence in the west of Algiers.
“Like all Algeria’s heads of state since the nation won its independence from France in 1962, including [Houari] Boumediene and Chadli [Bendjedid], Abdelaziz Bouteflika wants to bear his stamp on the country’s history by amending the constitution,” Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck, a research analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center, told Al Jazeera.
The government intends to reform Algeria’s military-dominated political system through constitutional amendments that will “strengthen democracy and deepen the separation of powers”, in the words of Ahmed Ouyahia, minister of state and Bouteflika’s senior adviser, who was in charge of the constitutional reform.
Under the revised constitution, the president will be restricted to two terms, reversing a move taken in 2008 that enabled Bouteflika to stand for re-election the following year. Fatiha Benabbou, a senior professor of law at the University of Algiers, noted that the decision to lift term limits “caused a huge public outcry”. The decision was harshly criticised by opposition groups and civil society, who claimed that Bouteflika would become Algeria’s first “president for life”.
The new constitution also requires that the president has support from the majority of parliament to appoint a prime minister, and stipulates freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the right to demonstrate peacefully.
“The proposed amendments enshrine the democratic values and the foundation of a new political life,” said Farouk Ksentini, chairman of the National Consultative Commission for Human Rights Protection and Promotion, in a statement released by Algeria’s state-owned news agency APS.
But many doubt that these promises will come to fruition.
“Great democratic principles are set out in the new constitution. But it remains unclear how and who will enforce it,” Ghanem-Yazbeck said.
Mohand Ikharbane, a senator and member of the opposition Rally for Culture and Democracy party, was also sceptical. “The Bouteflika administration decided to take the draft amendments of the new constitution through the parliament instead of holding a referendum, because it is afraid of asking for the Algerian people’s approval,” he told Al Jazeera.
Legal experts and political analysts say the new constitution maintains the political status quo in Algeria.
“The new constitution will not fundamentally alter the balance of powers. The president remains extremely powerful and still concentrates all the powers in his hands,” Benabbou said. “The proposed changes are mostly cosmetic.”
If the economic situation continues to worsen, there will definitely be more widespread social unrest. Unlike in 2011, the regime may run out of cash to buy social peace.
Algeria’s opposition parties, which boycotted the preparatory discussions on the constitutional reforms, do not believe the country’s rulers plan to give up any powers.
“The regime pretends to make some concessions, such as cancelling the change it made in 2008 regarding the two-term limit or establishing an independent electoral commission,” said Soufiane Djilali, founder of the opposition party Jil Jadid. “But, in reality, the regime is not serious about substantially reforming the voting process. And Algeria is still stripped of an independent judicial power, as the president continues to appoint the judges and the heads of both the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Council.”
Djilali – who boycotted the 2014 presidential election, saying it was rigged – does not believe that the new electoral commission will be transparent or impartial. “It will not be an independent body, as its members will be appointed by the president. Plus, the commission will monitor the voting process only; it will not fully control it. The ministry of interior will still be in charge of the organisation of an election.”
When Bouteflika first vowed to change the constitution in a speech on the state-owned TV channel in 2011, the Algerian government was under growing pressure. Several demonstrations against unemployment, high food costs and poor housing had broken out across Africa’s largest country. Inspired by the Arab Spring, which forced the Tunisian and Egyptian leaders to relinquish power, Algerian protesters hoped that its secretive political system would be the next to fall.
The oil-rich country, however, managed to stave off the uprising through a combination of repression and social spending. “Besides buying social peace, the Algerian rulers believed that they would maintain a certain sociopolitical stability by amending the constitutional law,” Ghanem-Yazbeck said.
But why did it take so long for Algeria to amend its constitution, while Morocco held a referendum on constitutional reforms only a few months after the first uprisings in 2011? “Algeria’s political instability, caused by Bouteflika’s fragile health, explains why the amending process has lasted so many years,” Benabbou explained. “The reform was first postponed in 2013 when Bouteflika was hospitalised in Paris. Then, he was no longer legitimate to amend the constitution, as he was running for re-election in 2014.”
While Algeria may have escaped the fallout of the 2011 uprisings, the country’s government has become increasingly brittle as Bouteflika’s health has deteriorated, to the point where many doubt that he actually rules the country any more. There has been much speculation over succession, but it remains unclear who will succeed the ageing president. “There is clearly a battle of influence among the obedient factions. With the new constitution, the regime prepares for the post-Bouteflika era,” Djilali said.
Meanwhile, Algeria’s economic situation is much weaker than it was in 2011. Given the dramatic drop in the price of oil, Algeria’s main export, the government may soon face difficulties in sustaining its strategy of buying off unrest through high public spending on basic goods and housing, experts say.
“The constitution is not only a way to maintain the status quo. It also allows the government to distract the people from the socioeconomic issues, such as unemployment, inflation and negative trade balance,” Ghanem-Yazbeck said. “If the economic situation continues to worsen, there will definitely be more widespread social unrest. Unlike in 2011, the regime may run out of cash to buy social peace.”