Bouteflika amends constitution, smoothing way to succession
ALGIERS - Taking cues from his predecessors, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika brought about a number of constitutional reforms as the country grappled with economic difficulties and security challenges along its borders with Mali and Libya.
All Algerian presidents since independence from France, 54 years ago, have rejigged fundamental laws to bolster their power and add honourable entries to their legacies.
Bouteflika, in power for almost two decades, has changed the constitution three times, including in 2008 when he scrapped a two-term limit for president, to extend his stay in power. Some analysts do not rule out the possibility he might act on the constitution anew if he were to finish his current term in 2019.
The ailing 79-year-old president promised bold reforms in 2011 as strife-weary Algerians ignored upheavals that ripped apart other parts of the Arab world.
However, Bouteflika took no chances. He steered clear of popular votes on the constitution and his backers in parliament overwhelmingly endorsed by a show of hands, as in the vintage days of single-party rule. The constitution won 499 votes from the parliament, with only two lawmakers voting against it and 16 abstaining, in early February.
The opposition initially divided over the purposes of the constitutional changes, with factions seeking a virtual regime change through the drafting of a new constitution. Others were hoping for a wide consensus ahead of the vote on proposed amendments.
Bouteflika presented the constitutional amendments as a solution to economic, social, cultural and political grievances. “The reforms we have started allow us to move to a new political and constitutional stage.”
The National Liberation Front (FLN) and the National Rally for Democracy (RND), which dominate the parliament, defended the constitutional amendments’ purposes as bolstering stability and fostering a more open multiparty democracy.
The most important amendments include reinstating the two 5-year terms limit for the president. Other changes enshrine the Berber Tamazight language as a national and official language and set up an independent elections commission.
Berber-speaking regions, mostly in the Kabylie area of north-eastern Algeria, are strongholds of the opposition movement not only because of the Amazigh language but also because of political grievances.
It is not clear whether the constitutional move on the language would alter the political balance in regions where the local population has traditionally leaned towards secular opposition groups, such as the Socialist Forces Front (FFS) and the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD). For the separatist Movement for Kabylie Autonomy (MAK), the change falls short of a special regional constitution.
It is not clear which dialect of Tamazight will be adopted as an official language. Tamazight, spoken by 9 million-11 million Algerians, includes Kabyle, Mozabite, Chaoui and Tuareg dialects.
Abdallah Djaballah, a leader of the Islamist Justice Party warned against the adoption of the Latin alphabet by Berber Academy in transliterating Tamazight. That would be “very dangerous for the Arabic language”, he said.
After having dissolved the powerful intelligence service and amending the constitution, Bouteflika might have secured most of the control over his own succession. The 2016 constitution grants him enormous powers and he can decide who will take over after the end of the fourth term.
It remains to be seen what he can do to bolster the rapidly deteriorating economy. In the long run, that could be Algeria’s real powder keg.