Algerian activists, experts see more of the same in new draft constitution

Critics dispute timing of the discussion and “imperial powers” kept by president.
Wednesday 13/05/2020
A general view shows empty streets in Algiers after anti-government protests were suspended, following the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. (REUTERS)
Not the best timing. A general view shows empty streets in Algiers after anti-government protests were suspended, following the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. (REUTERS)

ALGIERS –Legal experts and activists in Algeria are boycotting discussions of a draft constitution submitted by the government.

They say they are not convinced of the government’s intent and feel the prevailing political climate in the country and the public health crisis caused by the pandemic are not conducive to this type of debate.

“It is commonly accepted that any foundational document, or any type of contract, whatever its nature, requires the prior participation of all the parties involved in its formulation, article by article and chapter by chapter, and this is done in elected constituent structures. But this has not happened in Algeria,” lawyer and human rights activist Tarek Marah told The Arab Weekly.

“The vision regarding the nature of the system of government, for example, whether it should be parliamentary, presidential or semi-presidential, was conceived and drafted by a committee designated by the same structures that modified the previous constitutions, then the draft is submitted to an illegitimate parliament that exists through fraud,” Marah said.

According to him, “this (draft) constitution is stillborn and will not acquire any legitimacy or sanctity among all Algerian men and women, just like the previous constitutions and amendments,” in reference to the country being bogged down at the same stage of the political crisis.

Pro-Hirak lawyer and human rights activist Abdelghani Badi simply refused to participate in the discussion of the draft constitution in light of what he called in a press statement “the totally inappropriate context,” in reference to the turbulent atmosphere in the country due to the coronavirus pandemic and the prevailing political situation.

He seems to believe the timing chosen by the government to put forth the draft constitution for discussion reflects only a desire to adopt the changes as quickly as possible away from people’s attention.

The suggested amendments are not seen as changing much in the nature of the system. Marah finds an issue with the provisions concerning the Constitutional Court, “the text says that it will be composed mostly of appointed members, while the basis of constitutional courts is to have elected not designated members,” he said.

“We also find that the duties and powers of the president of the republic are the same as in the pre-Bouteflika constitution.”

He described the suggested creation of the position of vice-president as “a non-event to all Algerians” because, he said, “the position does not mean much as long as the powers of the vice-president are not demarcated in the constitution from those of the president.”

Legal expert Reda Daghbar said in a video on his official page that the draft constitutional document would simply “reproduce another Bouteflika, in light of the imperial powers that the project retained for President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, in the draft presented.”

“The (new) document gives the President of the Republic all the prerogatives and powers inherited from the old president, and perhaps even more, which means that no reform or change will take place in the political system that manages the country’s affairs,” he argued.

“The President of the Republic keeps the same prerogatives and powers that his predecessor had, such as being the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, and having oversight powers on foreign affairs and the judiciary,” Daghbar pointed out.

He  further noted that “the president also has legislative powers by possessing the right to oppose a ‘veto’ on legislation by requesting a second reading of the law, as well as the power to dissolve the parliament and ratify some international agreements without going through the parliament first; the president also controls the oversight bodies such as the Accounting Council and the Constitutional Court.”

Daghbar believes that the president’s powers remain unchanged and imperial. “He controls the administration with his power to appoint local officials (governors and heads of departments) and controls appointments in the judiciary. In return, he is absolved of any political or judicial accountability. To punish him, the people will just have to wait for the end of his five-year term and not re-elect him.”