Algeria Blows Another Chance at Reform

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If you’re looking for a redeeming feature in the farce that was Algeria’s constitutional referendum, it may be this: The ruling clique didn’t pretend it got a ringing endorsement. The official turnout was 23%, the country’s lowest ever, and 67% supported the changes.

In other words, less than 16% of eligible voters favor the proposals.

The referendum was an opportunity for President Abdelmadjid Tebboune to overcome the skepticism surrounding his election last year and claim a meaningful mandate from Algerians. Instead, he must now preside over a restive population that has spiked his tepid attempt at reform. This rejection will severely hamper his government’s ability to deal with the economic and public-health crises brought on by the pandemic, as well as the impact of low oil prices.

The government is struggling to explain away the embarrassment. Mohamed Charfi, head of the Algerian elections authority, has tried to argue that, given the coronavirus pandemic, a 23% turnout actually demonstrates that Algerians “crave democratic change.”

Nice try, Mr. Charfi, but it won’t wash. Algerians know that their government is still essentially run by a cabal of military, political and business leaders known collectively as “le pouvoir,” or “the power.”  They clearly did not feel the proposed alterations to the constitution represented the change they crave. The proposals were rejected by Hirak, the protest movement that bought down President Abdelaziz Bouteflika last year. Hirak is demanding more meaningful change, including a constituent assembly, an independent judiciary and fairer distribution of Algeria’s wealth.

The changes put to the plebiscite are strictly small-bore. They allow for some transparency in elections and in the management of public funds. But although they limit the president to two five-year terms — Bouteflika ruled for 20 — they do little to curb the power of the office. Nor do they represent a substantial check on “the power.”

But in a way, the dismal turnout has achieved what the changes did not: It left Tebboune, Bouteflika’s successor, politically weakened.

It doesn’t help that the president is himself in poor health: Tebboune, who is 74, is recovering from a serious bout of Covid-19, which required him to be airlifted to a hospital in Germany.

Hirak, on the other hand, will be energized by the poor turnout. The momentum of the people-power movement has been slowed by the pandemic, but any doubts about its political power can now be set aside. Demands for more meaningful reform will grow as Hirak seeks to press home its advantage against a debilitated government.

It is not too late for Tebboune to turn the humiliation of the referendum into an opportunity. He could pronounce himself unsatisfied by the low turnout and call for a do-over — this time, with a more consultative approach that grants Hirak and other groups a substantial role in the process. But that would require both statesmanship and the courage to break with “the power,” qualities that Tebboune has not yet demonstrated.

The worst outcome would be a return to the old authoritarian playbook of political repression. Happily, this result is unlikely: The military leadership may guard its privileges, but it has shown no appetite for putting down a popular uprising by force. It would be nigh impossible to persuade the men in brass that Hirak represents an existential threat to the Algerian state on the order of the Islamic Salvation Front (better known by its French acronym, FIS) in the 1990s.

That leaves Tebboune and “the power” in a no-win situation, a fact that will not be lost on Hirak.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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