Historically low turnout as Algerian voters back changed constitution

Election workers empty a ballot box at the end of voting in a referendum on a new constitution at a polling station in Algiers, Algeria

A proposal to change Algeria’s constitution won most votes in Sunday’s referendum and will become law, but very low turnout undercut the government strategy of using the poll to turn a page on last year’s political unrest.

Fewer than one in four registered voters cast a ballot, Algeria’s lowest ever turnout, with many in the opposition “Hirak” street protest movement opposing the referendum.

Two thirds of those who did vote supported the changes, the electoral commission head Mohamed Charfi said at a news conference on Monday, adding that the coronavirus had negatively affected turnout.

However, it means that only 15.8% of registered voters went to the polls and cast a ballot in favour of the new constitution. Prominent members of Hirak hailed the low turnout as a defeat for the government’s strategy.

“I hope men and women within the system will understand this lesson and do what is needed to listen to the people’s demands. The people want their own constitution and institutions,” said Mustapha Bouchachi, a lawyer and human rights activist.

The changes approved in the referendum include presidential term limits, new powers for the parliament and judiciary and a clause to let the army intervene outside Algeria’s borders.

President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who is in hospital in Germany, pushed the process of constitutional reform to try to quell mass street protests that thrust Algeria last year into its biggest crisis for decades.

The protests forced Tebboune’s predecessor Abdelaziz Bouteflika to step down after 20 years in office, and continued even after December’s election, stopping only when Algeria imposed a lockdown against the pandemic.

Tebboune had hailed the protests as a moment of national renewal, offering dialogue with demonstrators and embarking on a process of consultations to change the constitution.

Meanwhile, the authorities tried and imprisoned close Bouteflika allies and prominent businessmen in his circle on corruption charges.

Yet many Hirak members maintain their goals – replacing a governing elite that has ruled since independence from France in 1963, ending corruption and forcing the army to withdraw from politics – were only partly accomplished.

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