A referendum on a new constitution hailed by authorities as marking the beginning of a new era in Algeria is reviving tensions, with opposition leaders and activists denouncing the vote as a ploy to further entrench the ruling elite’s hold on power.
President Abdelmadjid Tebboune has since his election in December presented the flagship initiative, set to be put to a vote on November 1, as the best guarantee against a slide towards authoritarianism, saying the charter would lead to a strong parliament capable of counterweighing the head of state’s hitherto unchecked powers.
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Analysts say the revised text is unmistakably aimed at assuaging angry citizens, whose participation in a year-long pro-democracy movement was only brought to an end by the coronavirus pandemic.
The demonstrations – which initially began in February 2019 in response to a re-election bid by Tebboune’s predecessor, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, despite his failing health – quickly transformed into demands for systemic change.
While Tebboune, a former prime minister and erstwhile Bouteflika ally, was quick to sing the praises of the unprecedented show of people power, critics have come to doubt the 74-year-old’s commitment to democratic reform.
The sentencing in August of Khaled Drareni, one of the country’s better-known journalists – to two years in jail over accusations of “inciting unarmed gatherings” and “undermining the nation’s territorial integrity” – may have highlighted authorities’ apprehension for free speech.
But it is in the interior regions, where government critics enjoy less exposure, that the crackdown on dissent is being most passionately waged – and acutely felt. This was the case with Yacine Mebarki, an activist from the city of Khenchela, who was handed a 10-year jail sentence for “offending Islam”.
Nacer Djabi, a professor of sociology at the University of Algiers, said several issues made the new constitution problematic, starting with the government’s insistence that a committee of experts draft the text.
“This isn’t what people were calling for when they went out to protest,” Djabi told Al Jazeera. “How is this any different from Bouteflika’s style of governance?”
“Experts may be called upon to provide clarification on certain technical aspects of the charter after it has been discussed by the population at large … But they can’t possibly replace an entire people.”
Bouteflika had throughout his 20 years in power revised the constitution twice, first in 2008 to allow himself to run for a third term and again in 2016 to reimpose the two-term presidential limit.
Though heads of state are still limited to two consecutive or separate terms in office under the new constitution, it is the charter’s claim of enforcing the principle of separation of powers that is drawing the most criticism.
If approved, Tebboune would continue to enjoy much the same prerogatives as his predecessors, with the president still able to name and remove a sitting prime minister.
Mustapha Bouchachi, a prominent lawyer and former member of parliament, said the head of state would moreover be able to veto laws by one of two methods.
In the first instance, Tebboune may demand a second reading of the law, which would then require a two-thirds majority in parliament for the motion to be approved.
Tebboune would also be able to vote down a law once it is passed on to the senate – where a three-fourths majority to approve a bill is not possible without the green light from a third appointed by Tebboune.
“When it comes to the judiciary, he [Tebboune], as the president of the High Council of the Magistracy, would also appoint and dismiss judges,” Bouchachi told Al Jazeera.
“So the president is directly involved in the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. What’s more, Tebboune would also be in charge of all regulatory bodies, including those responsible for auditing government expenditure. This constitution gives the president the powers of an emperor.”
When it comes to rights such as freedom of speech, Bouchachi said that while such rights are enshrined in the new charter, bylaws voted on behind closed doors, including authorisation to stage protests, make their practice all but impossible.
Djabi said authorities from the very beginning showed their disdain for the protest movement by consistently refusing to entertain demands for a national dialogue conference or constituent assembly that would, following a predetermined calendar, submit a draft to public debate.
The fact that lawmakers belonging to what many Algerians see as a rubber-stamp parliament that once pledged its allegiance to Bouteflika only exacerbated tensions.
The chamber’s credibility took a hard hit when a parliamentarian at a corruption trial claimed seats at the assembly were sold for roughly 460,000 euros ($540,800).
This is in addition to concerns that the timing of the endeavour was not going to lead to a real debate.
Still, while agreeing that the new constitution does not meet most opposition parties’ demands, Lahouari Addi, a political scientist at Sciences Po Lyon, said political liberalisation was under way in Algeria.
He said authorities were reluctant to open up political space in an abrupt and definitive manner because they were afraid of being held accountable for their actions during the country’s civil war, which pitted government forces against Islamist fighters who took up arms after a coup deprived them of an all-but-certain electoral victory in the 1991 legislative elections.
“Power is still in the hands of the military and when you address them, they say we have nothing to do with the running of the country,” said Addi. “Yet nobody is allowed to get involved in politics without their approval.”
“They were astonished by the protest; they never imagined people would rise up in such a way. They are convinced of the need for change, but they want it to happen gradually over 10 or 15 years, which would then allow them to withdraw” and evade prosecution.