Algeria’s president seeks to extend his term in power beyond that allowed in the constitution, raising eyebrows, writes Nosreddine Qassem
Algerian President Abdul-Aziz Bouteflika formally announced his intention to amend the Algerian constitution to allow him to be president for a third term. According to Article 74 of the constitution endorsed in 1996, the presidential term is renewable only once. President Bouteflika submitted his amendments to parliament in anticipation of introducing more substantial amendments during a third term in office. It is expected that parliament will consider the amendment over the next two weeks.
It was after a speech delivered before judges at the inaugural session of the judiciary year that Bouteflika began addressing the nation. He formally announced the constitutional amendment that would be submitted to parliament instead of to a public poll, contrary to what he has repeatedly promised. According to Bouteflika, the shortcut was "due to the urgent and current challenges". The president did not exclude a public poll on more extensive amendments.
To the raised eyebrows of some, Bouteflika stressed that his amendments are aimed to "empower the people to practise their legal right in selecting whoever determines their fate and renew trust with full sovereignty". It is not anyone’s right, he added, "to restrict people’s freedom of expression. The relation between the elected ruler and the voter is a relation of mutual deep trust that has to be based on free and full conviction."
Proponents of the current constitution see Article 74 as a democratic gain in that it protects the homeland against tyranny and the lifetime rule of effective dictators. Bouteflika responded by saying that, "real rotation of power is the fruit of free choice as determined by the people themselves. In this regard, the people must be consulted using democratic and transparent free multi-candidate elections. Decision-making authority lies solely in the people’s hand."
The president’s announcement came as a surprise, but not to all. Since first elected, Bouteflika has appeared at times keen to extend the authorities of the presidency. Conflicts erupted, however, with groups that had cause to oppose the centralisation of power in Bouteflika’s hands. Repeatedly taken off the agenda, the long delay of the announcement created an assumption that the president might have changed his mind about the amendment. Recently he referred to "intensive commitments and accumulated priorities" as well as "multiple due rights" that prevented him pushing forward with his original plans to amend the constitution. He added: "major attention was focussed on anti-terrorism efforts, civil harmony and national reconciliation policy. Thus, the priority was fully given to public concerns and problems."
Parties supportive of the president, known as the Presidential Coalition comprising the Liberation Front Party, the National Democratic Gathering and the Peace Society Movement all welcomed the president’s decision, regarding it as strengthening democracy and allowing the people to choose whoever they want to be their leader. Opposition parties, topped by the Socialist Power Front (SPF), retorted that, "the president is amending the constitution to enable himself to run for presidential election, nothing more." The secretary-general of the SPF went as far as addressing the president directly, saying: "What you are doing is a serious threat. Law should dominate over all, and you are tailoring your own constitution according to your own ambition."
Activists and human rights organisations also have reservations on the president’s proposal, noting "the absence of an open serious discussion around [such] a crucial issue as amending the country’s basic law". Some stressed that multiple constitutional amendments diminish "state institutions and strip their legality", opening the way to "continuous violations of rights, freedoms and gained democracy". At the international level, Washington was the only capital that responded publicly. US State Department Spokesperson Sean McCormack deemed the issue an internal affair for Algeria and its people. Nonetheless, he called for complying with the principles of democracy, transparency and respecting the will of the people.
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