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Voting ends in Algeria referendum with apparent low turnout

Algerians finished voted in a referendum on a new constitution on Sunday, but early turnout figures suggested little enthusiasm for changes intended by the government to turn the page on last year’s political unrest.

President Abdelmadjid Tebboune and the powerful military have pushed the referendum, but many in a mass protest movement that shook Algeria last year have opposed the vote as a sham.

Officials had announced participation of only 13% by 2 p.m. (1300 GMT), five hours before polls closed in a vote conducted amid stringent health restrictions because of the global pandemic.

By comparison, in December’s presidential election, when turnout of 40% was the lowest in decades, the participation rate had reached 20% by 3 p.m. (1800 GMT).

Tebboune, in hospital in Germany since last week after saying aides had tested positive for COVID-19, pushed for a big turnout to show support for his strategy to end unrest.

Pro-government media had early on Sunday shown crowds of young men rushing into a polling station as it opened and forming lines to cast their votes.

However, polls seemed far quieter in the capital and in the Kabylie region, a bastion of support for the “Hirak” street protest movement and centre of a 1990s Islamist insurgency, demonstrators blocked polling stations, witnesses said.

“It is ‘ulac’ vote here,” said Said Mezouane in the village of Haizer, using the Berber word for ‘no’.

In Ouled Fayet, west of Algiers, about 10 people were waiting to vote. “Let’s hope for the better and pray for Tebboune’s speedy recovery,” said Ahmed Slimane, 60.

“There is no point in voting. This constitution will not change anything,” said 30-year-old bus driver Hassan Rabia, sitting with two friends at a cafe in central Algiers.

A cartoon in el Watan newspaper referenced Tebboune’s hospitalisation, with a man at a polling booth looking at ballots marked “yes” and “no” in German rather than in Arabic.

Tebboune has presented the changes as partly addressing the wishes of protesters who forced his predecessor Abdelaziz Bouteflika to step down after 20 years in office.

However, their demands – replacing the ruling elite, the military’s withdrawal from politics and an end to corruption – have at best only been partly met.

The new constitution includes presidential term limits and more powers for the parliament and judiciary.

However, the military remains the most powerful institution in Algerian politics, though it has played a less prominent role since Tebboune’s election.

The new constitution gives it powers to intervene outside Algeria’s borders, with the generals concerned about insecurity in neighbouring Libya and Mali.

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