Algeria introduces constitutional reforms

Friday 15/01/2016
A 2014 file picture shows Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal (R) speaking during a parliamentary session at the National Assembly in Algiers.

Tunis - Algerian constitutional reforms regarding the Berber language and a two-term limit for heads of state have been intro­duced by Algerian President Ab­delaziz Bouteflika.

Also among suggestions, an­nounced January 4th, was a provi­sion by which future Algerian presi­dents must consult with parliament on the appointment of a prime min­ister.

The planned constitutional changes, promised by Bouteflika during Arab upheaval in 2011, skirted opposition demands that reforms follow a political transi­tion arrangement to reshape the regime’s foundations.

Main opposition groups and prominent figures have argued that tweaking of fundamental law texts on October 5, 1988, had left the regime core unchanged and that Algeria urgently needs an efficient and productive economy, social justice and transparent and inde­pendent judiciary.

Military leader Ahmed Caid Salah was shown seated with Bouteflika putting final touches to the planned reforms before the announcement. Caid Ahmed’s presence under­scored military support for the re­forms and its role as a guarantor of political stability.

Bouteflika, re-elected to a fourth term in April 2014, had prom­ised a package of amendments to strengthen democracy in the hydrocarbon-rich North African state, which has been mostly gov­erned by the National Liberation Front (FLN) party and the army, since winning independence from France in 1962.

Analysts say that, despite the ve­neer of democracy in recent elec­tions, Algeria’s political system is deeply controlled behind the scenes through arrangements and compromises between the FLN elite and army generals who compete for influence, leaving opposition parties with little power. Regime supporters argue such a system has underpinned the country’s stability amid regional upheavals.

“The consensus over the reforms was difficult to achieve after four years of attempts to forge it as the master of the constitution revision, the head of the state, had squan­dered the capital of political confi­dence since 2008 when he changed the constitution to have a third mandate,” said the Liberté newspa­per in an editorial.

The constitution limited the presidential mandate to two terms before 2008’s change but it was re­stored in the proposed reforms.

“The revision of the constitution is at the same time too early and too late for the opposition which has among its priorities a commitment for a political transition… There is no place left for the debate,” added Liberté.

The influential El Watan news­paper described the proposed re­forms as “a charade”, arguing they would bring no meaningful change as the regime structure remains the same.

“The proposed changes, though attractive at the surface, are no sub­stitute for the lack of legitimacy of the presidency, which drafted the new text of the constitution as well as the parliament which will en­dorse it,” added El Watan.

The blueprint of the reforms, which Bouteflika’s cabinet director, Ahmed Ouyahia, presented, is to be submitted to parliament this month for approval, the last hurdle before being incorporated into the consti­tution.

“The amendments have been drafted after consultations. About 70% of those amendments reflects collective proposals from parties who took part,” Ouyahia said.

The amendments would also of­ficially recognise the Amazigh language spoken by Berbers, the original inhabitants of North Africa before the seventh-century Arab arrival.

However, the document also states that Algeria is an Arab na­tion, which is likely to irk Berber activists who clamour for plurality of identities and cultures instead.

In 2002, the Algerian govern­ment recognised Amazigh as a na­tional

language, meaning it could be taught in schools in Berber-speak­ing areas. But Berbers had pushed for Amazigh to gain official status, which would put it on the same level with Arabic.

Bouteflika’s supporters have a strong majority in the legislative body and the reforms are likely to easily pass but a group of promi­nent opposition figures and politi­cal parties have assailed the pro­posed changes for falling short of their demands.

“Any revision of the constitu­tion that involves the country’s future requires that the people be consulted through fair and honest elections,” they said in a statement.

Since his 2014 re-election, Boutef­lika, 78, has appeared in public only in brief images on state media. He suffered a stroke in 2013 that left him hospitalised in France for several months.

Analysts say the reforms may be aimed at facilitating a stable tran­sition of power if Bouteflika de­cides to step down but the propos­als keep the door open for deeper changes in the future.

Algeria’s government is facing daunting economic challenges af­ter the dramatic collapse of world oil prices cut crucial oil and gas revenues in half, forcing the gov­ernment to trim budget spending for 2015 and 2016.

“The expected sharp rise of pric­es in 2016 and the fall of the dinar currency value revive the worries of Algerians about the living costs and purchasing power. That makes 2016 a year of high risks,” said ana­lyst Ali Titouche.