Turnout at record low in Algerian referendum aimed at giving parliament more power

A man walks past campaign billboards in Algiers on October 22 ahead of Algeria’s November 1 referendum on constitutional reforms.
A man walks past campaign billboards in Algiers on October 22 ahead of Algeria’s November 1 referendum on constitutional reforms. © Ryad Kramdi, AFP (illustration)

Fewer than one in four Algerian voters took part in Sunday's constitutional referendum, officials said, despite government efforts to encourage high turnout as part of a strategy to turn the page on last year's political unrest.



President Abdelmadjid Tebboune and the powerful military had presented the new constitution as a sign that they had addressed the causes of public anger that prompted mass weekly protests for more than a year.

The referendum result will be announced on Monday at 10 a.m. (0900 GMT).

However, Sunday's turnout of only 23.7%, according to the election body, showed lacklustre backing for a vote that many members of the "Hirak" street protest movement had decried as a sham intended to quash their movement.

The global pandemic may have also constrained voting, with Algeria recording more than 300 new cases on Saturday.

Bouteflika's successor Abdelmadjid Tebboune, currently hospitalised overseas, has pitched the text as meeting the demands of the Hirak, a movement that staged vast weekly demonstrations for more than a year, until the coronavirus pandemic stopped rallies.

But despite a determined government media campaign for a resounding "yes" vote to usher in a "new Algeria", observers say the document offers little new.

"Nothing has changed. The ultra-presidential regime will stay," said Massensen Cherbi, a constitutional expert at Sciences Po university.

Tebboune has placed Sunday's referendum at the forefront of efforts to turn the page on the Hirak movement.

And after a campaign that saw the "yes" camp dominate state-backed media coverage and supporters of a "no" vote banned from holding meetings, few observers doubt that the text will pass.

The key question is how many people vote. 

Tebboune said Saturday Algerians will once again "have a rendezvous with history" to bring in a "new era capable of fulfilling the hopes of the nation and the aspirations of our people for a strong, modern and democratic state".

Seen by opponents as an old-school regime insider, Tebboune came to power following a December 2019 presidential poll marred by record abstentionism.

The Hirak movement led calls for a boycott of that election, and even official data put the turnout at less than 40 percent.

The 74-year-old president is hospitalised in Germany amid reports of Covid-19 cases among his staff, and few details have been released on his condition.


Experts say the referendum is partly a bid for a more convincing validation at the ballot box.

Rather than attacking the youth-led Hirak, Tebboune has ostensibly reached out to it, describing it as a "blessed, authentic popular movement" and arguing that the revised constitution meets its demands.

But despite his conciliatory language, many observers are sceptical, especially given how the document was written.

"The drafting and consultation process was highly controlled by the state," said Zaid al-Ali, an expert on constitutions in the Arab world. "It's hard to argue that the Hirak's demands for a fully inclusive debate on the state's constitution was respected."

Regime 'incantations'

And while the new text lists purported guarantees of social and economic rights, al-Ali says these promises are hollow.

"The constitution's social and economic rights are not directly enforceable, which means that they are only aspirational," he said.

The Hirak, for its part, has rejected the document "in substance and form", calling it a "change of facade" and urging voters to boycott the poll.

Algeria, with a population of 44 million and vast oil reserves, has been battered by low crude prices and the coronavirus pandemic, further hurting a young population already suffering from spiralling unemployment.

While many have expressed apathy over Sunday's vote, government spokesman and Minister of Communications Ammar Belhimer has predicted that people will "flock" to the polls "to lay a new stone in the process of nation-building and check the manoeuvres of Algeria's enemies."

That 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 prisoners' support group.

Prominent Algerian journalist Akram Belkaid said the regime wanted to prevent Hirak militants "from relaunching the movement in the street once the health situation improves."

"The repression currently underway also aims to prevent a large-scale boycott of the referendum," he wrote in a blog post.

"That would undermine the credibility of its incantations about 'a new Algeria'."

Polling stations opened at 8 am (0700 GMT) and close at 7 pm (1800 GMT).

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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