Constitutional Referendum Victory Brings Little Certainty to Algeria

In a bid to placate over a year of widespread protest that began in February 2019, the Algerian government proposed a constitutional referendum that took place on November 1st. Algerians resoundingly passed the reform, but that is far from telling the whole story.


The referendum vote saw historically low voter turnout as opposition leaders and groups advocated a boycott from the referendum with many viewing it as simple window-dressing that would only make matters worse. Opposition campaigners were barred from holding meetings, calling into question the democratic legitimacy of the vote.


The Algerian government and political elite have been scrambling since popular protests ousted former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika in early 2019. While large-scale protests persisted, Abdelmadjid Tebboune was eventually elected in December 2019, succeeding Bouteflika’s 20-year reign.


However, Tebboune is hardly a new face to Algerian politics, he served as a minister under Bouteflika’s government and even served a short stint as Prime Minister. Suffice to say, Tebboune has failed to capture the support of the social movement that ousted his predecessor.


In March, protests died down as the COVID-19 pandemic became a public health emergency for Algeria, and the military enforced a nationwide ban on protests. And in a story similar to many other countries in North Africa, Algeria’s economy is struggling thanks to a drop in oil prices and the COVID-19 malaise on the day-to-day economy.


The public health crisis, economic downturn, and unpopular government quickly became the breeding ground for a return to street protests.


A Resurgent Frustration


In early October, protesters marched in the capital, Algiers, defying the nationwide ban on protests due to COVID-19 concerns. The protests continued through October despite increasing coronavirus cases in the country.


The frustration has not only manifested in the streets, but also in the ballot box with less than 20% of voters turning up for the constitutional referendum vote.


Constitutional researcher Massensen Cherbi told Al Jazeera that the referendum would make Algeria’s constitution “the most authoritarian constitution in the entire Mediterranean.”


The “authoritarian” document was crafted largely without input from Hirak, the largest protest organization that emerged in 2019.


Without the ability to meet and hold demonstrations against the referendum, the opposition’s strategy turned to a boycott, and with historically low voters, many activists see the result as a rejection of the government.


“I hope men and women within the system will understand this lesson and do what is needed to listen to the peoples’ demands. The people want their own constitution and institutions,” Mustapha Bouchachi, a lawyer and human rights activist told Reuters.


Current Presidential Woes


While the government hailed the result as a big win, that message has fallen on deaf ears for much of the country and the international press. With low turnout and still angry social movement, Algeria’s president still has a tall task to attempt to stabilize society.


This fluid situation is also not aided by the President’s health. President Tebboune has been in a German hospital bed for a week with COVID-19 complications. Government sources finally confirmed Tebboune has COVID-19 after nearly a week of speculation over the health of the 74-year-old who regularly smokes.


Such a diagnosis would be difficult to handle in the best of times, but as the country continues to fight its own battle against the virus, its leader is MIA.


Beyond personal and public health, the economic conditions are exacerbating the current government’s instability.


Low crude oil prices have been a thorn in the Algerian economy’s side. As a member of OPEC, Algeria came out in favor of extending supply cuts in hope of staving off further price decreases.


The second wave of coronavirus in Europe, combined with a looming second wave in Algeria has given the state enough worry to cut supplies in anticipation of decreased demand. The final decision rests with Russian President Vladimir Putin who has expressed interest in curbing production.


The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has also expressed concerns about Algeria’s economy and the impact of COVID-19 on the country.


President Tebboune has been reluctant to call on help from the IMF, likely worried about saddling the country with debt and potentially unpopular austerity measures.


And the People in the Streets?


The popular protest movement that ended the reign of the longest-serving president in Algerian history has been hamstrung by the pandemic. A more robust military presence and legal bans on gatherings have decreased protest activity.


But the same complaints persist in Algerian society with the government unable or unwilling to take on many of the movement’s requests.


While the ouster of Bouteflika was hailed as a great achievement, the aftermath is yet to substantially change the reality of many Algerian citizens. President Tebboune is from a Bouteflika background, and while he’s given lip service to the protest movement, the constitutional referendum has done little to inspire hope in the men and women who took to the street.


If substantial change is not offered, it becomes a question of if not when the protests begin again. The Algerian government is working against the clock.