Algeria Passes Constitutional Reforms a Silent Majority Rejects

Algeria’s military-backed rulers were dealt a stinging rebuke as a majority of voters sat out a referendum on proposed constitutional reforms that failed to answer calls for a new order and quell more than a year of pro-democracy protests.

The proposals won support from 67% of voters in a plebiscite on Sunday, according to the election commission. Only 23% of registered voters, however, turned out to cast ballots -- the lowest participation rate of any vote in the North African state, according to Mohamed Charfi, head of the elections authority.

Opponents had called a boycott, but authorities blamed the turnout on concerns over the coronavirus. Given the circumstances, the results show Algerians “crave democratic change,” Charfi said at a news conference on Monday announcing the results. He dismissed charges that the results lacked legitimacy because of the meager participation, calling the process “indisputably” clean.

Medical Treatment

President Abdelmadjid Tebboune says the constitutional changes redress problems that forced out longtime leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika and kept demonstrations simmering throughout curbs to contain the virus. They include more transparent elections and management of public funds, greater minority rights and limiting the president to two five-year terms.

Tebboune rose to power after a poorly attended election in December, and the even lower turnout on Sunday won’t boost his image. The 74-year-old leader is currently hospitalized in Germany, undergoing medical treatment for an undisclosed condition. His last public appearance was on Oct. 15.

Critics contend the amendments give the president more power and expand the authority of the influential military. The protest movement continues to demand a constituent assembly, an independent judiciary and fairer distribution of the nation’s wealth.

“What was really at stake for the regime is to ensure that people ‘moved on’,” Dalia Ghanem, a resident scholar at Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, wrote in an email. “The referendum was the regime’s way to put an end to the protests.”

For the opposition to take things to a new level, it has to channel “the political energy that once was in the streets of Algiers and all the territory and draft concrete achievable demands,” she said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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