Bouteflika amends constitution, smoothing way to succession

Friday 04/03/2016
Good old ways

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.