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Algerian Constitutional Reform Approved On Record Low Turnout

Algerians approved a revised version of the North African country’s constitution with two-thirds of votes cast, the electoral commission said Monday, after record low turnout in the previous day’s referendum.

The vote had widely been seen as a regime manoeuvre to neutralise the Hirak protest movement, which at its peak had swept long-time president Abdelaziz Bouteflika from power. The Hirak had called for a boycott of the referendum.

The revised text passed with 66.8 per cent of the vote, National Independent Elections Authority (ANIE) chief Mohamed Charfi told a news conference, noting that the exercise took place in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic.

Charfi had earlier announced turnout of just 23.7 per cent, a historic low for a major vote. The regime “wanted to break the momentum of the Hirak by reducing its demands to a minimal revision of the constitution”, Algeria expert Hasni Abidi told reporters.

“The people massively rejected this and placed the regime at a dead end.”

The plebiscite took place in the absence of President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who is hospitalised overseas after reported cases of the Covid-19 illness among his staff.

Tebboune had been elected in December in a poll with a turnout of just under 40 per cent, the lowest in a presidential election since independence from France in 1962. Said Salhi, deputy president of the Algerian Human Rights League, said Sunday’s low turnout was “a victory for the Hirak”. “The regime must take note of its failure and reconsider its roadmap,” he tweeted. “The process of democratic transition is the solution.”

– ‘No plan B’ –

The Hirak, whose unprecedented mass rallies toppled Tebboune’s predecessor Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April 2019, had pressed on with months of mass demonstrations to demand deep reforms to the ruling system.

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The coronavirus pandemic forced their suspension in March. Tebboune has pitched the tweaked constitution as meeting the movement’s demands, rhetoric echoed by Charfi on Monday.

“The fact that the people were able to express themselves in total independence was another step in the construction of the new Algeria which began with the blessed Hirak,” he said.

But despite the conciliatory words, the build-up to the vote saw a string of arrests and court rulings against pro-Hirak activists, social media users and journalists, with around 90 currently behind bars, according to the CNLD, a prisoners’ support group.

State media heavily covered the “yes” campaign, while the “no” camp was banned from holding meetings. The revised constitution itself was written by a committee of experts handpicked by the regime, and keeps key appointments in the hands of the president. While it nominally enshrines a list of social and political rights, experts say it provides no guarantees.

The RCD, the main secular opposition party, warned that “persisting on this path and promulgating a constitution rejected by 86.3 per cent of voters amounts to opening the way to disorder which could carry all sorts of dangers.” Abidi also cautioned that Tebboune’s gambit had failed.

“It was a slap in the face for a president in search of legitimacy… Not only did he fail to convince the people, but he finds himself isolated in the presidency and without a plan B,” he said.

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