Consultations end for Algeria's new constitution

June 22, 2011 - 1:29 PM

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — Two months of consultations about how to amend Algeria's constitution have been completed, paving the way for this oil-rich country to implement reforms aimed at heading off the wave of pro-democracy unrest sweeping North Africa.

But two key opposition parties boycotted the process as a sham and have predicted that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has run Algeria for 12 years, will not fulfill his promise to approve meaningful changes in a new constitution, including laws governing politics.

Pro-democracy uprisings have transformed the Arab world, from Morocco to Yemen, sending longtime leaders scrambling to come up with reforms to appease their restive populations. On April 16, Bouteflika promised a new constitution and electoral laws.

For two months, a committee of three led by the head of the senate met with political parties and civil society groups to gather their recommendations for how to change the constitution

"Our role was to listen to those who came without making comment or judging them," said Mohammed Ali Boughazi, the spokesman of the constitutional commission, which ended its work late Tuesday. "We respect the opinions of one and all, and we render them up to the president of the republic."

No timetable has been given for when Bouteflika will present the new constitution, but some sense of what the new document will contain is expected before the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan in August.

While the three largest political parties in the ruling coalition have backed the process, two key opposition parties, the Front for Socialist Forces and the Rally for Culture and Democracy, boycotted the process as a sham.

RCD chief Said Saadi has called it a "monologue of power," while Hocine Ait Ahmed of the FFS dismissed it as "an act to give the international community some change."

Several other Algerian politicians who led the country in the 1990s also have dismissed the new reform process as "trying to give an obsolete system one last breath," said Ali Kafi, who led the government from 1992 to 1995.

While Bouteflika is credited with shepherding the country out of a decade-long civil war that claimed some 200,000 lives and restore some measure of normalcy, he has been criticized for his authoritarian tendencies.

Though the details of the recommendations have not been made public, certain broad outlines are well known, including limiting the president to two five-year terms, dividing power between a president and a prime minister, ensuring the independence of the judiciary, wresting TV and radio away from state control, and accelerating economic reforms.

Since popular uprisings toppled Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of neighboring Tunisia, Algeria has seen many protests by different segments of society, but they have never coalesced into a broad-based movement capable of bringing down the government.

The state also has benefited from high oil prices and has used revenue from its vast hydrocarbon resources to appease elements of the opposition.