Polls opened in Algeria Sunday for a vote on a revised constitution the regime hopes will neutralize a protest movement which at its peak last year swept long-time president Abdelaziz Bouteflika from power.
Bouteflika’s successor Abdelmadjid Tebboune, currently hospitalized overseas, has pitched the text as meeting the demands of the Hirak, a movement that staged vast weekly demonstrations for more than a year, until the coronavirus pandemic stopped rallies.
But despite a determined government media campaign for a resounding “yes” vote to usher in a “new Algeria”, observers say the document offers little new.
“Nothing has changed. The ultra-presidential regime will stay,” said Massena’s Cherbi, a constitutional expert at Sciences Po university in Paris.
Tebboune has placed Sunday’s referendum at the forefront of efforts to turn the page on the Hirak movement.
And after a campaign that saw the “yes” camp dominate state-backed media coverage and supporters of a “no” vote banned from holding meetings, few observers doubt that the text will pass.
The key question is how many people vote.
Tebboune said Saturday that Algerians will once again “have a rendezvous with history” to bring in a “new era capable of fulfilling the hopes of the nation and the aspirations of our people for a strong, modern and democratic state”.
Seen by opponents as an old-school regime insider, Tebboune came to power following a December 2019 presidential poll marred by record abstentionism.
The Hirak movement led calls for a boycott of that election, and even official data put the turnout at less than 40 percent.
The 74-year-old president is hospitalized in Germany amid reports of Covid-19 cases among his staff, and few details have been released on his condition.
Experts say the referendum is partly a bid for a more convincing validation at the ballot box.
Rather than attacking the youth-led Hirak, Tebboune has ostensibly reached out to it, describing it as a “blessed, authentic popular movement” and arguing that the revised constitution meets its demands.
But despite his conciliatory language, many observers are skeptical, especially given how the document was written.
“The drafting and consultation process was highly controlled by the state,” said Zaid al-Ali, an expert on constitutions in the Arab world. “It’s hard to argue that the Hirak’s demands for a fully inclusive debate on the state’s constitution was respected.”
– Regime ‘incantations’ –
And while the new text lists purported guarantees of social and economic rights, Ali says these promises are hollow.
“The constitution’s social and economic rights are not directly enforceable, which means that they are only aspirational,” he said.
The Hirak, for its part, has rejected the document “in substance and form”, calling it a “change of facade” and urging voters to boycott the poll.
Algeria, with a population of 44 million and vast oil reserves, has been battered by low crude prices and the coronavirus pandemic, further hurting a young population already suffering from spiralling unemployment.
To limit the spread of Covid-19, authorities restricted entry to polling stations to three people at a time, made mask-wearing mandatory and had curtains removed from booths to prevent voters from touching them.
While many have expressed apathy over Sunday’s vote, government spokesman and Communications Minister Ammar Belhimer has predicted that people will “flock” to the polls “to lay a new stone in the process of nation-building and check the manoeuvres of Algeria’s enemies”.
That rhetoric has been accompanied by a campaign of arrests against pro-Hirak activists, bloggers and journalists, with around 90 currently behind bars, according to the CNLD, a prisoners’ support group.
Prominent Algerian journalist Akram Belkaid said the regime wanted to prevent Hirak militants “from relaunching the movement in the street once the health situation improves”.
“The repression currently underway also aims to prevent a large-scale boycott of the referendum,” he wrote in a blog post.
Polling stations opened at 8:00 am (0700 GMT) and were set to close at 7:00 pm (1800 GMT).