Algeria: When Boycott is the Best Way to Participate

A historically low turnout in the recent referendum highlights the urgent need for those in power to deliver serious reform for democratic change.

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Published 9 November 2020 3 minute READ

Tin Hinane El Kadi

Former Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme

Algeria’s lowest poll turnout in its history — with no more than 23.7% of Algerians voting on the proposed new constitution — shows the country still faces serious political stalemate more than one year after the Hirak, the pro-democracy movement which galvanised millions of Algerians and was only brought to a halt by the pandemic.

Only 13.7% out of the country’s 24.47 million registered voters supported the new constitution, with the rest either rejecting it or casting invalid votes. But with no minimum turnout required, the constitutional changes have been approved, further deepening the regime’s legitimacy crisis.

Despite much fanfare about the importance of the amended constitution — which the regime claimed would usher in a ‘new Algeria’ — citizens have forcefully expressed their rejection by a massive boycott of a referendum seen by many as merely a manoeuvre to extend the life of an authoritarian and corrupt system. In the Kabyle region, known for its long-standing opposition to the political system, almost no votes were registered at all.

Most authoritarian regimes enjoy at least the illusion of electoral participation and popular choice so, within a context of repression and absence of both trust and mechanisms for citizens to voice discontent, abstention becomes a powerful act of defiance.

The previous record low turnout in Algeria’s history was the much-contested presidential election which brought Abdelmadjid Tebboune to power in December 2019 with just 39% of the electoral body participating. Suffering from a lack of legitimacy, Tebboune made the revision of the constitution his flagship initiative, claiming it would meet the demands of the Hirak.

However, both the content of the new constitution and the process of drafting it faced hefty criticism. Opponents argue the text further entrenches the powers of the president without guaranteeing separation of powers. It not only expands his executive rights, it also gives him the upper hand over both the judiciary and the legislative.

It also recognises for the first time the political role of the army as de jure while it was previously just a de facto role, making it ‘the most authoritarian constitution in the entire Mediterranean region’ according to Massensen Cherbi, a constitutional researcher from Science Po Paris.

Many also criticize the constitution being drafted by legal experts without taking into account the voice of the people. Unlike in Tunisia, where citizens voted after the Jasmin Revolution for a constituent assembly to write the nation’s new fundamental law, Algeria’s latest constitution mostly emanated from the top.

The text was approved by both chambers of an unpopular parliament unchanged since Bouteflika’s era, while access to the media remained closed off to all those opposing the new constitution. The ‘debate’ around it was largely characterized by a relentless repression campaign targeting Hirak activists, political opponents, and independent journalists. The CNLD (Comité National pour la Libération des Détenus) claim 90 people are currently behind bars for expressing political views.

In addition, coronavirus exacerbated the economic malaise of millions of Algerians for whom the constitutional amendment already ranked low among their concerns. To exacerbate the situation further, when President Tebboune tested positive for COVID-19 just weeks before the poll, the presidential staff remained silent on the issue opening speculation over his health and capacity to rule.

The survival of Algeria’s political system relies largely on three key pillars — the exploitation of the role played by the FLN (Front de Liberation National) and its armed wing the ALN (Armée de Libération Nationale) in freeing the country from French colonialism, social co-optation through the distribution of oil rents, and repression.

But in recent years the first two factors have lost relevance. The young generation leading the protest movement does not buy into the ‘historical legitimacy’ argument, as reflected by Hirak slogans such as ‘FLN, Degage’ (FLN, get out), and ‘FLN au musée’ (FLN to the museum).

Concurrently, oil rents have significantly shrunk since 2014, undermining the government’s redistributive capacity as foreign reserves fell from almost $200bn to about $55bn in 2020. A lack of diversification away from hydrocarbons means Algeria may face a severe economic shock once foreign reserves run out.

With a continuously shrinking social base, the regime now sees repression as its only card to play. The few existing spaces of freedom are disappearing, while judicial harassment and the imprisonment of critical voices are reaching worrying levels. A narrowly-defined ‘security paradigm’ guides all the government’s actions, from economic management to handling the pandemic.

And this growing disconnect between the regime and the people, as well as apparent power competition between various clans within the system, is further weakening state capacity, meaning the government is unable to deliver on its commitments and is engaged in ad-hoc, superficial reforms, keeping the country in an unviable ‘no development, no freedoms’ situation.

Sadly, this situation is leading to desperate measures being taken by some, with the number of Algerians illegally crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe significantly increasing and accounting for 37 percent of all migrants arriving in Spain between January and July 2020, compared to only 16 percent for the same period in 2019.

The prolonged absence of organized platforms from the popular movement able to channel people’s aspirations for change have hindered its success. But recent political initiatives emerging from the Hirak do provide optimism and hope. The uncertain future of Algeria depends on efforts made on both sides to reach a new political agreement.

No significant change — whether economic, political, or social — can be achieved without a strong political pact. The referendum debacle should prompt those in power to change direction and engage in constructive dialogue with opposition parties and civil society organizations to define a peaceful political transition which, in turn, would enable a fresh democratic system based on the rule of law, the respect of both individual and collective freedoms, and social justice.