Algerian parliament adopts constitutional changes, Hirak sceptical

The turnout for the November referendum on amendments will be a major test for Tebboune.
Thursday 10/09/2020
Algerian Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad addresses parliament members during a voting session on constitutional reforms in the capital Algiers, on September 10. (AFP)

ALGRIES- Algeria’s parliament on Thursday adopted draft constitutional reforms, a flagship initiative of President Abdelmajid Tebboune aimed at responding to the demands of the country’s Hirak protest movement.

But Hirak-linked activists are not convinced the amendments reflect a true desire for change on the part of the government.

In a show of hands, the amended constitution was approved by 256 of the 462 members present in the People’s National Assembly, said speaker Slimane Chenine.

The reforms will now be put to a referendum on November 1, the anniversary of the start of Algeria’s 1954-1962 war of independence from France.

“The proposal is fully in line with the requirements of modern state building and responds to the demands of the popular movement (Hirak),” Tebboune said on Sunday after the government gave the reforms the green light.

The government pledged the reforms would bring a “radical change in the system of governance,” prevent corruption and enshrine social justice and press freedoms in the constitution.

The revision also sets out to reinforce the “principle of separation of powers, ethics in political life and transparency in the management of public funds,” so as to “spare the country any drift toward tyrannical despotism,” it added.

Tebboune had promised to press for reforms during elections late last year after the resignation of longtime leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika under pressure from the Hirak movement, which widely rebuffed the polls.

According to information made public by state media, the proposed revisions would limit presidential and parliamentary mandates to two terms (5 years each), establish a special body to manage underdeveloped regions and authorise the military to conduct missions abroad, in a break from the army’s traditional policy of non-intervention in foreign lands.

Algerian Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad addresses parliament as MPs look on, September 10. (AFP)
Algerian Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad addresses parliament as MPs look on, September 10. (AFP)

Interventions must be approved by two-thirds of parliament members and would take place under the supervision of the United Nations, the African Union and the Arab League.

The constitutional changes would make it mandatory for the president to choose the prime minister from the parliamentary majority rather than pick any politician as he can now.

They would also scrap a previously considered change that would have created the position of vice-president.

In a nod to the Hirak movement, there is also a proposal to commemorate the pro-democracy movement for its role in ousting Boueflika on April 2, 2019 and leading the country on a new path.

The constitutional amendments would ban the suspension of media activity and dissolution of political parties and associations “except by judicial ruling.”

The changes would prevent the minister of justice and the president of the supreme court from membership of the Higher Judicial Council. They would also create a Constitutional Court to replace the Constitutional Council to oversee the outcome of elections and the constitutionality of laws and international treaties.

The turnout for the November 1 referendum will be a major test for Tebboune, who has weathered calls by protesters for overarching reform and an overhaul of the country’s ruling elite since assuming office in December.

While the president had made some inroads with the opposition by affirming their right to protest and backing calls for reform, a recent government crackdown on political opponents, independent media and activists has since drawn their ire.

Some pro-Hirak parties and groups have already dismissed the constitutional move as an attempt to create a “laboratory constitution” and slammed the referendum as “treachery.”

Algeria’s constitution has been modified several times since independence and was tailored to Bouteflika, who gained unlimited powers to appoint top official positions.

Since Bouteflika’s resignation in April last year, the judiciary has handed down heavy prison sentences against former officials and influential businessmen once close to him, mostly on charges of corruption or nepotism.

But since the weekly Hirak protests were halted in March due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, political opponents, independent media and activists have also been targets of a crackdown.