Algerians snubbed a vote on a revised constitution the government hoped would neutralise a protest movement – one which at its peak swept longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika from power.
With the “yes” camp almost certain to win, the only real question was how many would take part in a poll also seen as a bid to bolster Bouteflika’s successor Abdelmadjid Tebboune, currently hospitalised overseas.
The final turnout was 23.7 percent, electoral commission chairman Mohamed Charfi said late on Sunday, a historic low for a crucial election. Results are expected on Monday.
The Hirak protest movement called for a boycott, dismissing the revised text as a “facade” of change.
The youth-led movement launched vast demonstrations in early 2019 and kept them up for more than a year until the coronavirus pandemic forced their suspension.
Tebboune, elected last December on a record low turnout and keen to turn the page on Hirak, has pitched the text as meeting its demands.
But observers have pointed out the draft keeps key powers and appointments in the hands of the president.
‘Modern democratic state’
If passed, it will be “the most authoritarian constitution in the entire Mediterranean”, said constitutional researcher Massensen Cherbi of Sciences Po Université in Paris.
State media had campaigned for a resounding “yes” vote to usher in a “new Algeria” with the “no” camp banned from holding meetings.
Tebboune on Saturday urged Algerians to vote for a “new era capable of fulfilling the hopes of the nation and the aspirations of our people for a strong, modern and democratic state”.
The 74-year-old is hospitalised in Germany amid reports of COVID-19 cases among his staff. Few details have been released on his condition.
While many have voiced apathy over the vote, some Algiers residents said they backed the new text.
Mohamed Miloud Laaroussi, an 86-year-old former rebel sentenced to death during Algeria’s war for liberation from France, said he voted “for my children and my grandchildren”.
“I did my duty during the war to liberate my country and I do it now for stability,” the former boxer said.
Tebboune, rather than attacking Hirak verbally, has described it as a “blessed, authentic popular movement”.
But despite his conciliatory language, observers are sceptical. The way the document was written has raised eyebrows.
“The drafting and consultation process was highly controlled by the state,” said Zaid Al-Ali, a senior adviser on constitution-building at the International Idea think-tank.
“It’s hard to argue that the Hirak’s demand for a fully inclusive debate on the state’s constitution was respected.”
While the new text lists purported guarantees of social and economic rights, al-Ali said these promises ring hollow.
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.
Not all young Algerians rejected the revised constitution.
“I voted ‘yes’ because I support change,” said trader Abdennour Gueniche, 34, after casting his ballot in Algiers. “I’m optimistic about the future … President Tebboune has promised to give young people an important place.”
Outside the capital, activists held isolated demonstrations and ripped up campaign posters, social media posts showed. In the traditionally restive Kabylia region, several voting booths were unable to open, local media reported.
Others, such as Ahmed Mohand, a man in his 80s in a suburb of Algiers, chose not to vote. “There are too many divisions surrounding this project,” he said.