Argument

Election Theater Is Alive and Well in Algeria, Too

A referendum on constitutional changes fools no one but the regime itself.

A man casts his vote just before polls close in Algeria’s capital Algiers on Nov. 1.
A man casts his vote just before polls close in Algeria’s capital Algiers on Nov. 1. Ryad Kramdi/AFP/Getty Images

For the second time in less than a year, on Nov. 1 Algerians were summoned to voice their opinion about the way their country should be run. Once again, however, their views are likely to count for little. The referendum held over the weekend allowed citizens to vote on a host of constitutional amendments proposed by the government. Authorities trumpeted the vote as the solution to the demands of protestors who have been rallying against the regime since February 2019. It seems unlikely, though, that the maneuver will satisfy anyone. Only 23.7 percent of a total of more than 24 million voters participated, according to the government’s official figures, approving the changes by 66.8 percent of the vote. Whether or not you trust the government’s numbers, the lack of any real enthusiasm for making the decision will make it difficult for the regime to pass the vote off as the democratic celebration it was hoping for.

Some things have changed since the start of Algeria’s peaceful demonstrations: President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the initial target of dissent, was pushed aside by the army. A presidential election, largely for show and forced through in December 2019, installed a new civilian head of state, 74-year-old Abdelmadjid Tebboune. The COVID-19 outbreak has further degraded Algeria’s economic situation and provided cover for authorities to intensify repression. But one thing remains a constant in Algeria: The country’s aged authoritarians continue to use the mimicry of democratic procedure to fake reform.

The date of the referendum was carefully chosen. The first day of November marks the start of the war of independence against French rule, in 1954. But independence led to bitter disappointment. Since 1962, a faded collection of army officials, secret services operatives, and aged politicians has managed the country’s hydrocarbon wealth with little accountability or oversight. Le pouvoir, as this shadowy clique is known by Algerians, has long been adept at reinventing itself to preserve the overall system while offering the appearance of change. Now, by evoking the liberation struggle in the referendum, Algerian rulers were once again trying to reclaim any ounce of credibility they can muster after decades of economic mismanagement and political repression.

Yet credibility is hard to come by for the top of the country’s ruling class. And so, government officials worked hard to convince people to approve the changes. The state-owned news agency, often in overblown language, published a barrage of articles supporting a Yes vote. In speeches across the country, cabinet ministers, and bureaucrats described the constitutional changes as the “democratic edification of Algeria,” and a step to “give citizens confidence in the authorities,” and a way to “secure the struggles and achievements of the Algerian people.” The Minister of Religious Affairs, Youcef Belmehdi, went as far as saying that to participate in the referendum was to “follow the Prophet’s example.”

Regime-linked parties such as the Front de Libération Nationale and the Rassemblement Nationale Démocratique also campaigned for Algerians to vote favorably. Voices denouncing the referendum were continuously silenced leading up to the vote. Political parties that opposed the process were prevented from holding public meetings. And while it was promoting the freedoms set to come with the amendments, the regime continued to jail journalists and protestors.

The last days of the campaign were further disrupted by the announcement that Tebboune had been flown to Germany on Wednesday for unspecified medical exams. Just a few days earlier, he had told Algerians he would voluntarily isolate after contacting with members of the presidency that had tested positive for COVID-19. Yet no additional information was given about whether or not their president had been infected with the virus or whether he was suffering from another illness altogether.

On paper, the constitutional changes could indeed potentially help improve the country’s laws. They include pledges in favor of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. They also limit the number of presidential terms and stipulate that the country’s prime minister should come out of a parliamentary majority and not a presidential appointment (although the president would hold on to his power to dismiss the prime minister).

In practice, any amendments will do little to limit a regime that is equally comfortable operating within the boundaries of constitutional legality as it is working outside of them. In a recent interview with the New York Times, 75-year-old Said Chengriha, the country’s army chief of staff, feigned surprise at the assertion that military personnel remain the real power in Algeria: “How do you want us to be involved in politics? We’re not at all trained in that.” Yet Algerians know that the army has appointed or approved every president since independence—and gotten rid of them when necessary. By propping up a new president, reforming the constitution, and establishing a fresh and equally tame parliament, the regime wants to turn a page on the Bouteflika era.

Because of the government’s opacity, it is difficult to know whether Algeria’s authoritarians believe that the constitutional referendum will appease a population that has seen decades of similar moves. More than indifference or lack of interest, the low turnout reported all over Algeria on Sunday seems more like an active rejection by a population that has already seen every play in the regime’s book. Perhaps the regime is simply vying for time, stuck in a situation with no clear exit, hoping for the unlikely possibility that higher hydrocarbon prices will once again prop the Algerian budget. Despite ongoing repression by security forces and a regime-controlled judicial system, the generals have so far navigated over a year of protests without the large-scale violence they have used in the past.

But what happens when the COVID-19 pandemic eventually recedes, and Algerian cities are once again filled with massive demonstrations for political freedoms and competent government? If military authoritarianism were ever replaced by a civilian state, with a clear separation of powers and working institutions, many of the current military leaders would likely be open to prosecution—at home or abroad—for state crimes committed during the civil war in the 1990s. It is unlikely that the military would ever agree to stop pulling the levers of power from behind. But this stalemate, a combination of growing economic trouble with the state’s rigid backwardness, is bringing the country nearer to a potential violent upheaval.

The tragedy is that Algeria’s rulers are unable to see how much their population has changed. Ten years ago, as revolts and uprisings were convulsing the Middle East, the memories of the country’s civil war, which led to an estimated 200,000 deaths, kept most Algerians from putting up anything more than faint attempts to emulate what was happening in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Syria. It also helped that the government had enough oil and gas money to splurge on salary increases and subsidies.

But today’s young Algerians have no recollection of the war. Their memories are a lot more dangerous to authorities. They recall 2019, the year they saw individual citizens coalesce into a united front against their backward regime and out-of-touch political leaders. They remember that they were able to peacefully take over public spaces, long left to deteriorate through years economic negligence, corruption, and political repression. As you would expect in a country in which rulers and not the people determine electoral outcomes, the constitutional amendments have been “approved”. But it is ludicrous to think that this show of theatrics will do anything to calm the streets.

Francisco Serrano is a writer and emerging-markets analyst.

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