Algeria is scheduled to hold a public referendum on the new constitution on November 1, 2020. Both the upper house of the Algerian parliament, the Council of the Nation, and its lower house, the People’s National Assembly, unanimously approved the final draft of a new constitution on September 10 following months of discussion between political parties and the grassroots Hirak movement over several controversial articles. The result is a constitution that draws a line under the Bouteflika era, which lasted for two decades.
This article will shed light on the constitutional amendments being made, the Algerian presidency’s motives for holding a referendum, and the reactions of the political parties, Hirak, and Islamist groups. Additionally, the various scenarios that could arise from the new constitution either being approved or rejected in the referendum will be discussed, including how each scenario would affect Algeria’s political landscape, with particular regard to the potential changes to the electoral law and the possibility of early legislative and local elections.
On January 8, 2020, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune established a committee of legal experts, headed by constitutional expert Ahmad Larabah, who were tasked with preparing a draft constitution. They were given a maximum of three months to do so, after which the draft was to be submitted to public consultation, discussed in parliament, and, finally, put to a public referendum. The committee, having completed their task, submitted a set of proposals to the president on March 26. However, the social distancing measures introduced in response to the COVID-19 outbreak led to the announcement of these proposals being delayed until May 7.
The committee’s report contains 73 proposals divided into six subject areas, one of which, entitled “The Division and Balance of Power”, concerns the powers held by the president, the head of government, and the parliament. The draft constitution was presented to political parties, trade unions, civil associations, and the Algerian media so that they could submit their own proposals. However, Hirak activists and some opposition parties refused to take part in the consultations, demanding the formation of new transitional institutions which would be responsible for drawing up a new constitution.
These amendments are scheduled to be put to a referendum on November 1, 2020, the anniversary of the start of Algeria’s war of liberation against French colonialism. If the constitution passes the vote, it would be the fourth in the country’s history, after the Constitutions of 1963, 1976, and 1989.
Implications of the constitutional amendments
1. Limiting the president to two terms: The final draft of the constitution states that the president can remain in office for a maximum of two terms, each lasting up to five years. The two terms may be consecutive or separate. After this, the same individual cannot be renominated for election.
2. Reducing the president’s legislative powers: The amendments state that the president may only have legislative power in the event that parliament is dissolved. However, Hirak believes that the final draft actually increases the president’s powers, since he or she has the right to appoint one third of the members of the Council of the Nation. This is in addition to the fact that the legislative authorities do not have the right to pass any law without presidential approval.
3. Recognizing the president’s right to dispatch military units on foreign peacekeeping missions to protect national security, upon approval from two thirds of the members of parliament: The Algerian military refused the preliminary draft of the constitution, citing reservations over some articles on foreign military operations, given that the Algerian army has not undertaken any foreign interventions since the 1973 war. In a report filed to the presidency, Algeria’s Ministry of National Defense pointed to the preliminary draft’s proposed amendments allowing the head of State, in his or her role as Minister of Defense and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, to order the military to take part in foreign crises in the name of “restoring the peace.” The Ministry suggested that the potential repercussions of this would affect the country’s national security and threaten stability.
Believing that these proposed provisions would place additional burdens on the State, the military put forward its own proposal to amend article 31, which was included in the constitution’s final draft. The final draft article states that any military deployments abroad must be in accordance with the principles and objectives of the United Nations, the League of Arab States, and the African Union, with the objective of “preserving” rather than “restoring” peace, upon the president issuing specific orders in this regard and subject to approval by two thirds of parliament.
4. Removing the position of vice-president: The first draft constitution included a proposal which stated that in the event of the deteriorating health or death of the president, or any other emergency situation that would leave the position vacant, the vice-president would be appointed as president. This was one of the proposals that received the most objections, including from the military, as it was considered to be subject to the president’s personal choice. In the end, the position of vice-president was removed completely.
5. Appointing the head of government from the parliamentary majority party: In the name of achieving a power balance, the amended constitution indicates that the head of government – a title which has replaced “prime minister” – will be appointed from the party that holds the majority in parliament, whether that be the president’s party itself or one in coalition with it. This would grant all political parties a greater opportunity to compete and participate in the country’s political process, regardless of ideological orientation.
Motives for putting the amendments to a public referendum
Internal reactions to the constitutional amendments
The constitutional amendments have received mixed reactions. Those in favor are primarily from what are known as the loyalist parties. Those against the amendments are a mixture of opposition parties, movements, and fronts, primarily Hirak, the Movement for the Society of Peace (the Algerian faction of the Muslim Brotherhood), the Socialist Forces Front, the Ennahda Movement, the Rally for Culture and Democracy, and the Justice and Development Front. These reactions are detailed below:
Meanwhile, the Movement for the Society of Peace has announced that it will not accept or reject the amendments until its Shura Council has convened to determine its position on the final draft, reasoning that the presidency and government are being too quick to push the amendments through. The party is leaning further towards rejecting the draft, however, and is preparing for the early elections that could arise in that event, which reflects their fluctuating position of power.
1. Rejection of the amendments: This may occur given the obstacles to the new constitution being accepted, which is a sign of President Tebboune’s growing legitimacy. At present, Algeria continues to face fundamental problems, including a decline in economic growth due to a fall in oil prices, the adverse socioeconomic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic on Algerian citizens, a rise in the price of consumer goods, and the effects of this on buying power. These problems could push some Algerian citizens to reject the amendments – a situation which also depends on the ability of Hirak and the opposition parties to formulate a rival discourse to that of the authorities with a view to painting these amendments as purely superficial.
2. Approval of the amendments: In this scenario, voters turn out in favor of the proposed constitution, which would suggest that the new amendments meet the demands called for by Hirak since February 22, 2019. It would also mean that Hirak’s standpoint was too weak to persuade voters to reject the constitution and that the opposition’s fragmentation prevented it from putting forward alternative solutions to Algeria’s political obstacles. The proposed new constitution would transform Algeria’s political system into a semi-presidency; the new president would be selected through public elections and executive powers would be divided between the presidency and the government.
In the most likely scenario, the amendments will pass the vote. This will not necessarily be thanks to the government’s ability to garner national support, but rather the weaknesses present in Hirak and the wider opposition, which is ridden with internal divisions and advocates unrealistic ideas, such as forming transitional institutions to draft the constitutional amendments when such institutions could only be formed if the authorities themselves chose to do so in the first place. Hirak may object the result of the referendum, plunging Algeria into an endless cycle of political turmoil.
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