Algeria’s parliament has adopted a package of constitutional reforms that authorities say will strengthen the country’s democratic stature, but opponents doubt it will bring real change.
The reforms are meant to address long-standing public grievances in the North African nation, and possibly to prepare for a smooth transition amid concerns over the health of 78-year-old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
The package was passed by 499 votes to two, with 16 abstentions, Senate speaker Abdelkader Bensalah said.
A two-term limit on the presidency – lifted in 2008 to allow Bouteflika to run for a third time – will be reintroduced and the president will be required to nominate a prime minister from the largest party in parliament.
Bouteflika – whose public engagements have become rare since suffering a stroke in 2013 – will be allowed to finish his fourth term, which ends in 2019, and run for a fifth if he wishes.
The package also prevents Algerians with dual nationality from running for high posts in public office, which has sparked criticism among the Franco-Algerian community.
It foresees the creation of an independent electoral commission and recognition of the roles of women and youth. Freedoms of assembly and the press will be explicitly guaranteed.
The Amazigh language spoken by the indigenous Berber population will also be recognised as official, alongside Arabic.
After the vote, Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal hailed the president as “the architect of the new Algerian republic”.
But critics disagree, saying the reforms are little more than a show and will do little to reduce the influence of the powerful elite, including Bouteflika’s National Liberation Front party and army generals.
‘Constitutional power grab’
Djamel Zenati, a former lawmaker and regime opponent, said that “with the current revision, our country’s constitution finally brings together the main elements necessary to build a democracy”.
But as “violating laws has become the law” in Algeria, it is hard to believe those in power are being even “the slightest bit sincere”, he wrote in El Watan newspaper.
Ali Benflis, the former prime minister, who was Bouteflika’s rival in the 2014 presidential polls, slammed the reforms as a “constitutional power grab” to “solve only the regime’s – not the country’s – problems”.
The president and his supporters have moved in recent months to take control of the security services, dissolving the powerful Department of Intelligence and Security and jailing or sidelining top officials.
Bouteflika and his inner circle have held a firm grip on power since 1999 and, as the end of his rule appears to close in, there are fears of instability in the mainly Muslim country of 40 million.