Algeria Implements Constitutional Reform; Low Oil Prices Raise Economic Questions

Photo credit: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Earlier this week, Algeria reintroduced a two-term limit on the presidency that had been lifted in 2008 to allow President Abdelazziz Bouteflika to run for his third term. This constitutional reform was part of a larger reform package, which includes the requirement for the president to nominate a prime minister from the majority party in parliament, the promise of an independent electoral commission, and efforts to increase the involvement of women and youth in political processes. The Berber language has also been made an official language of the state and will appear on government documents. “This project crowns the process of political reforms promised by the head of state,” guarantees “democratic change by means of free elections” and is a “bulwark against the vagaries of political change,” Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal told BBC. The package passed parliament by a count of 499 votes to two, with 16 abstentions.

Similar promises were made after the 2011 Arab uprisings but never came to fruition, leading critics of the regime to dismiss the changes as superficial and insignificant.  Djamel Zenati, a lawyer and outspoken opponent of the government, wrote in El Watan that “with the current revision, our country’s constitution finally brings together the main elements necessary to build a democracy”…“But as “violating laws has become the law,” it is hard to believe those in power are being even “the slightest bit sincere.”

The political reforms coincide with the reportedly diminishing health of 78-year old of President Bouteflika, global decline in oil prices, and growing concern over the country’s economic stability. With Africa’s third largest conventional oil reserves and the world’s 10th biggest gas reserves, Algeria has been a key supplier of oil and gas to the West, providing the government with a “comfortable financial cushion” to keep its economy stable and citizens satisfied. At the end of 2015, however, Algeria’s Central Bank expected oil to bring in just half of the revenue it saw in 2014. In response, Algeria announced a 9 percent reduction in subsidies for basic food items and petrol, and will likely cut even more at the suggestion of the IMF.

“Protests over alleged nepotism and corruption during the awarding of public housing as well as unemployment and food prices have increased,” asserted Caroline Alexander and Salah Slimani of Bloomberg Business. Additionally, 70 percent of the unemployed are Algerians under the age of 30. “If either the economy or a political succession is managed badly, the holder of Africa’s largest gas reserves and a key ally of the West in the battle with Islamist militancy could unravel.” Amid the growing political and economic tensions, the government has cracked down on political dissenters such as Hassan Bouras, a journalist, and Okacha Mehdi, a human rights activist.

Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck  and Intissar Fakir of the Carnegie Endowment write, “The assumptions that have long prevailed about Algerian stability will need to be reexamined. The government can no longer sustain the same level of social spending to appease the population.”