Algeria deeply divided as it braces for constitutional vote

26.10.2020

Algerians are set to vote on 1 November on proposed constitutional changes more than a year after mass street protests forced long-time ruler Abdelaziz Bouteflika to step down.

The constitutional amendments are part of reforms that incumbent President Abdelmadjid Tebboune pledged after being elected last December. Tebboune has been criticised by the Algerian protest movement, known as the Hirak, for being part of the regime of Bouteflika, who ruled Algeria for 20 years, despite the fact that Tebboune was sacked three months into his time as prime minister. In recent weeks, controversy has raged in Algeria over the draft constitutional amendments.

Proponents hail the proposed changes, saying they herald a "new Algeria" based on the rule of law, while opponents decry them as a boost for autocracy, saying they grant the president more powers.

The amendments limit the presidential tenure to a two-term cap, of five years each. In the current constitution, adopted in 1996, there is no limit on how many times the president can run for the post. However, the draft charter gives the head of state powers to appoint the governor of the central bank, the chief judge of the Constitutional Court and four of the tribunal's 12 members.

The head of state is also empowered to name the chief of a commission tasked with overseeing elections in the country.

 

Critics say those powers and others retained from the Bouteflika-era constitution contradict Tebboune's pledges to root out autocracy in Algeria.

"The draft document establishes an autocracy because it makes the post of the president like that of an emperor, who interferes in the work of legislative and judicial authorities," Algerian rights lawyer Mostafa Bouchachi said.

"I do not think that with these proposed amendments you can lay the foundation for a new Algeria of democracy and freedom for which Algerians took to the streets on February 22, 2019," Bouchachi added in a public statement to Tebboune last month.

22 February 2019 was the day when street protests against Bouteflika started in Algeria. Bouteflika stepped down less than two months later. Many of the Hirak protesters are calling for a boycott of the upcoming vote, arguing that going to  polls means legitimising Tebboune.

Algeria's Islamists meanwhile have their own worries about the draft constitution, saying it would strengthen secularism in the mostly Muslim country. The Movement of Society for Peace, Algeria's largest Islamist party, is pushing for a vote against the changes.

Islamists mainly oppose a draft article stipulating that the state authorities protect mosques "from any political or ideological effect," seeing it as targeting their influence. Islamists also say the proposed charter does not include an explicit article that Islamic law, or sharia, is a source of legislation in Algeria.

Soufiane Djilali, the head of the New Generation Party, sees the situation differently.

"The proposed amendments open the door wider for personal and collective freedoms," Djilali told journalists. "For example, according to the new constitution, authorities are obliged to approve political parties when their application files comply with the law. This has not been the case before."

The New Generation Party was among the staunch opponents of Bouteflika's regime and joined the street protests against him. "The constitutional amendments include clear concessions in favour of the rule of law," Djilali said.

Those changes, he added, protect freedom of beliefs, boost women's rights and facilitate procedures for licensing print and electronic newspapers.

"All these factors will help create a new political class that will be free from the shackles of the past and build a democratic future," he added.    (dpa)

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