Algerians were put to the vote on Sunday on a reformed constitution that the regime hopes will finally neutralize a protest movement that at its height last year swept longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika from power.
Bouteflika’s successor Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who is currently hospitalized abroad, has put the text to meet the demands of Hirak, a movement that held huge weekly demonstrations for more than a year until the coronavirus pandemic stopped demonstrations.
But despite a targeted government media campaign for a resounding “yes” vote to launch a “new Algeria”, observers say the document provides nothing new.
“Nothing has changed. The ultra-presidential regime will remain,” said Massensen Cherbi, a constitutional expert at Sciences Po University.
Tebboune has put Sunday’s referendum at the forefront of efforts to turn the page on the Hirak movement.
And after a campaign in which the “yes” camp dominated state-sponsored media coverage and supporters of a “no” vote banned from holding meetings, few observers doubt the text will pass.
The key question is how many vote.
Tebboune said on Saturday that Algerians would once again “have a meeting with history” to bring about a “new era capable of fulfilling the nation’s hopes and our people’s hopes for a strong, modern and democratic state”.
Seen by opponents as an insider from the old school regime, Tebboune came to power after a presidential election in December 2019 that was ruined by record keeping.
The Hirak movement led calls for a boycott of this election, and even official data put turnout at less than 40 percent.
The 74-year-old president is hospitalized in Germany amid reports of Covid-19 cases among his staff, and few details have been released about his condition.
Algerian President Tebboune is transferred to German hospital amid Covid-19 fears
Experts say the referendum is in part a bid for a more convincing validation of the ballot.
Instead of attacking the youth-led Hirak, Tebboune has apparently reached out to it, describing it as a “blessed, authentic popular movement” and arguing that the revised constitution meets its demands.
But despite his conciliation language, many observers are skeptical, especially given how the document was written.
“The preparation and consultation process was heavily controlled by the state,” said Zaid al-Ali, an expert on constitutions in the Arab world. “It is difficult to argue that Hirak’s demand for a fully inclusive debate on the state constitution was respected.”
And while the new text shows alleged guarantees of social and economic rights, al-Ali says those promises are hollow.
“The social and economic rights of the constitution cannot be enforced directly, which means they are only ambitious,” he said.
Hirak, for his part, has rejected the document “in substance and form”, calling it a “facade change” and urging voters to boycott the vote.
Algeria, with a population of 44 million and large oil reserves, has been hit by low crude prices and the coronavirus pandemic, which has further hurt a young population already suffering from burgeoning unemployment.
While many have expressed apathy over Sunday’s vote, government spokesman and communications minister Ammar Belhimer has predicted that people will “flock” to the polls “to lay a new stone in the process of nation-building and control the maneuvering of Algeria’s enemies.”
This rhetoric has been accompanied by a campaign of arrests against pro-Hirak activists, bloggers and journalists, with around 90 currently behind bars, according to the CNLD, a prisoner support group.
Prominent Algerian journalist Akram Belkaid said the regime would prevent Hirak militants “from restarting movement on the streets once the health situation improves.”
“The ongoing repression also aims to prevent a comprehensive boycott of the referendum,” he wrote in a blog post.
“This would undermine the credibility of its incantations of ‘a new Algeria’.”
Polling stations open at 8 (0700 GMT) and closes at 19 (1800 GMT).