Promised New Start, Algerians Vote on Constitution Amid Cynicism

Polls opened in Algeria for a referendum on amendments to the constitution that authorities say will address the causes of long-running unrest in the OPEC state.

Voting is taking place nationwide from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday, with results due the following day. Unfortunately for a government craving stability, many of the millions who joined mass protests since early 2019 in the North African country have shown few signs of supporting the plebiscite.

President Abdelmadjid Tebboune insists the constitutional changes address grievances which forced out longtime leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika and kept demonstrations simmering through curbs to contain the coronavirus.

Promised New Start, Algerians Vote on Constitution Amid Cynicism

Tebboune’s proposed more transparent elections and management of public funds, greater minority rights and limiting the president to two five-year terms. Yet to observers like Abed Charef, a prominent political commentator and founder of El Khabar newspaper, the changes are aimed “more to the internal needs of the ruling class than to the demands of the protesters.”

Army Role

Authorities want the plebiscite to “burnish the legitimacy of local and parliamentary elections Tebboune plans to hold,” Charef said in an email. How protesters react to the vote will be decisive, he said.

Tebboune traveled to Germany Oct. 28 for treatment for an unidentified medical condition after aides tested positive for Covid-19.

Other amendments that extend the president’s executive reach, strip the prime minister of some oversight of the economy, and hint at a bigger role for the army, point to more power for Tebboune and the military that backs his ruling party.

Unrest surged in Algeria, an energy-rich country on Europe’s doorstep, as Bouteflika bid for a fifth term as president before eventually stepping down in April 2019. Demonstrators kept pressing their demands for the removal of “le pouvoir,” a military, government and business elite that’s ruled since independence from France in the 1960s and which they blame for corruption and entrenched youth unemployment.

Civil War

For years the government relied on memories of a catastrophic civil war in the 1990s and energy revenues to underwrite a subsidy system that kept the population quiet. But slumps in the oil price from 2014 undercut Algeria’s key revenue source, fueling resentment.

Promised New Start, Algerians Vote on Constitution Amid Cynicism

Turnout was low in the December vote in which Tebboune was elected. It may be the same on Sunday after a campaign almost devoid of the usual placards and posters. Youth and Sports Minister Sid Ali El-Khaldi told dissenters they could always leave Algeria.

Economic Pain

Under Tebboune authorities brought to trial some former premiers and powerful businessmen accused of corruption. But the moves were dismissed as superficial by the protest movement known as Hirak. It continues to demand a constituent assembly, an independent judiciary and fairer distribution of the nation’s wealth.

The economy will contract 5.5% in 2020 after posting anemic growth of 0.8% last year, the International Monetary Fund forecasts. Foreign reserves are down more than two thirds from a decade ago.

Yet bruised by its encounter with the IMF during the civil war, Algeria has shown little inclination to break the taboo of turning to the lender or international debt markets for support.

There appear to be no proposals to deal with the “huge economic problems” that await, said Isabelle Werenfels, who specializes in North African politics at the Berlin-based SWP Institute.

“It is unclear how they will manage without resorting to external debt and the question is if they can eventually make the ideological shift and turn toward the IMF,” she said.

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