ALGIERS (Reuters) – Algeria’s leaders see Sunday’s referendum on a new constitution as a key part of their strategy to move beyond last year’s popular unrest, but few people in the streets seem enthused by the vote, and the opposition movement rejects it as a sham.
“Why a new constitution? Why is it so important? I have no answers,” said Lounes Belgacem, 34, a plumber who lives in Lakhdaria outside the capital.
Posters plastered on city walls urging Algerians to back the new constitution draw a comparison with a November 1954 uprising against French colonial rule to it as a moment of national renewal.
“1954 – November of Liberation; 2020 – November of Change” the posters read.
President Abdelmadjid Tebboune – who was hospitalised in Germany this week – has pushed the referendum as part of his efforts to turn a page on the mass protests that ousted his predecessor and shook the ruling elite.
The new constitution will limit presidents to two terms, give more powers to the parliament and judiciary and allow the army to intervene outside Algeria’s borders.
However, many supporters of the opposition “Hirak” street protest movement have rejected the proposed constitution, seeing it as way to distract attention from the old ruling elite’s continued grip on power.
“Popular pressure on the regime. This is how change will come,” said Riyad Mekrez, who said he had attended every one of the weekly protests that lasted for more than a year until the coronavirus lockdown.
“As usual, I won’t vote,” he said, expressing the Hirak view that Algerian elections are little more than charades designed to give the appearance of popular support for a system that is essentially undemocratic.
Hirak opposed last December’s election in which Tebboune won office, with 58% of the vote on a turnout of only 40%.
Though the referendum requires only a simple majority of people who vote to pass, Tebboune and other senior figures have been pushing for a high turnout to show it has popular support.
It has led to missteps. One government minister was forced to apologise after saying, in a meeting, that anybody who was unhappy with the new constitution “can leave the country”.
Meanwhile Said Chengriha, who as army chief of staff is one of Algeria’s most powerful men, has campaigned for the constitution, calling for Algerians to vote in large numbers.
(Reporting by Lamine Chikhi, writing by Angus McDowall, Editing by William Maclean)