Algerians finish voting in a referendum on a new constitution, but the turnout of mere 23.7 percent suggests little enthusiasm for changes intended by the government to end political unrest.

Election workers empty a ballot box at the end of voting in a referendum on a new constitution at a polling station in Algiers, Algeria November 1, 2020.
Election workers empty a ballot box at the end of voting in a referendum on a new constitution at a polling station in Algiers, Algeria November 1, 2020. (Reuters)

Algerians have snubbed a vote on a revised constitution the regime hoped would neutralise a protest movement, one at which at its peak swept long-time president Abdelaziz Bouteflika from power.

The turnout for the referendum was 23.7 percent, electoral commission chairman Mohamed Charfi said on Sunday, a historic low for a major election. 

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.

By 5:00 pm (1600 GMT), just 18 percent of voters had cast ballots, the electoral commission said, raising the prospect of record abstention. The results are expected on Monday.

The Hirak protest movement had called for a boycott, dismissing the revised text as a "change of facade".

Year-long protests

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 record low turnout and keen to turn the page on the Hirak, has pitched the text as meeting its demands.

The revision of the constitution was among the promises the president made when he was elected in December. 

It limits presidents and parliament members to two terms, makes it easier to create political parties, and hands some presidential powers to the prime minister, among other changes.

But observers have pointed out that the draft keeps key powers and appointments in the hands of the president.

If passed, it will be "the most authoritarian constitution in the entire Mediterranean", said constitutional researcher Massensen Cherbi of Sciences Po university in Paris.

Tebboune hospitalised in Germany

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, a heavy smoker, is hospitalised in Germany amid reports of Covid-19 cases among his staff. 

For many Algerians, the most dramatic proposed constitutional change would allow the Algerian military to intervene abroad, in the United Nations or African Union peacekeeping operations, a major departure from the current doctrine of non-interference.

The military has long played a key role in Algeria, and military chief General Said Bengriha has campaigned around the country for a "yes" vote.

READ MORE: Algerians mark year of protests, demand more reforms

Coronavirus complicates matters  

Voters were able to cast ballots at some 61,000 polling stations across the country, which closed at 7:00 pm (1800 GMT).

While many have voiced apathy over the vote, some Algiers residents said they had backed the new text.

Tebboune, rather than attacking the 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.

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.

READ MORE: As Algerians mark independence, the revolutionary spirit lives on

Source: TRTWorld and agencies