On February 7, the Algerian parliament adopted a reformed constitution submitted by a moribund Bouteflika administration eager to organise the conditions of the upcoming power transition.
The 78-year-old Algerian president, serving his fourth term in office, has been treated in hospital several times over the past few years and many question his ability to stand at the helm of his country.
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The new constitution, which limits the number of successive terms to two, should prevent such a political monopoly in the future.
The reforms introduce important modifications and provide significant novelties both societal and political. In the societal sphere, the Amazigh language spoken by the 13 million indigenous Berber population will be recognised as official alongside Arabic, Other changes address the access of young people and women to the job market.
Real reforms or facade?
On the political level, besides the presidential mandate reform, amendments also require the president to nominate a prime minister from the largest party in parliament and establish the existence of an electoral commission which is expected to be independent.
Even though the constitutional changes seem progressive on paper, it is still too soon to tell if these represent a commitment to reforms or if they are simply a facade.
Even though the constitutional changes seem progressive on paper, it is still too soon to tell if these represent a commitment to reforms or if they are little more than a facade.
The limit on presidential terms already existed before it was abrogated in 2008 to allow the re-election of Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Nothing in the recent Algerian political developments suggests that this will not be repealed by a future administration.
Several opposition parties have boycotted the ballot, arguing that the announcement should be received with scepticism. A recent dismantling of the powerful Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS) into three smaller entities has not prevented the government from sidelining opposition movements and past promises on freedom of the press have not often been turned into acts.
In truth, Algeria’s recent political developments fare poorly in comparison with the ones in Tunisia and even Morocco.
Rabat promptly engaged on the path of reform after the Arab Spring demonstrations and the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet received the Nobel Peace Prize last December for proving that Islamist and secular groups could agree on a negotiated path towards liberalisation.
On the other hand, Algeria’s stability has led to an ostracism of opposition movements.
Turning point for Algeria
These constitutional changes arrive at a turning point for Algeria, which will experience jointly a change of regime and a badly degraded economic situation after the collapse of energy prices.
Hydrocarbons income plummeted by 40 percent last year, and the effect on the Algerian economy will be colossal if prices do not increase soon as energy revenues represent 70 percent of the country’s budget. The macroeconomic conditions are prone to a rise in popular discontent, especially among young people – among whom unemployment stands at 25 percent because of the establishment’s incapacity to diversify the domestic economy.
The Algerian government seems to have been eager to alienate a part of the opposition to Bouteflika by prohibiting any dual citizens from running for key offices.
This measure, contained in the much-criticised article 51, proves the lack of commitment to liberalisation of the current political elite. Past presidential candidates, such as Rachid Nekkaz, would be automatically prevented from running in elections, along with six million other citizens.
It would effectively lock out political debate in the country and strengthen the chances for the current political ruling group to maintain its grip on national politics.
This direct restriction on binational citizens over a presumed lack of representation and legitimacy is quite singular in Algeria. Over the past 18 months, the country capitalised on the PR potential of the success of its national football team after its impressive run in the World Cup.
Commentators underlined the capacity of the team to unite the Algerian with the “Zmigris” community – the pejorative Algerian word for émigrés – as 17 of the 23 selected players were dual citizens born in France.
This renewed unity between the population in Algeria and its large diasporas was sacrificed on the altar of political realism and Machiavellian calculations. Instead, the existence of two categories of citizens was made official.
Therefore, as much as the introduced constitutional changes seem to follow, albeit several years later, the political liberalisation successfully implemented by its neighbours in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, they also answer to two pragmatic objectives.
First, they restrict the number of political opponents in forthcoming elections. Second, they represent a handy tool to counter future unrest, allowing the elite to argue that reforms have already been adopted. Their implementation and sustainability can be questioned, however, in light of recent legal overturns and the opaqueness of Algerian politics.
Remi Piet is assistant professor of public policy, diplomacy and international political economy at Qatar University.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.