Algerians were voting Sunday on whether to approve a revised constitution that imposes term limits promises new freedoms and aims at answering demands from pro-democracy protesters who pushed out their long-serving, autocratic president last year.
However, opponents of the constitution were barred from campaign venues or from expressing their views on public television or radio, so they are calling for a boycott. The referendum is taking place symbolically on the 68th anniversary of the beginning of Algeria's war for independence from France.
Pro-democracy activists say the revised charter doesn’t go far enough to open up politics to a new generation of leaders. Islamist parties say it doesn't do enough to promote Islam and the Arabic language, and oppose a measure on religious freedom.
Meanwhile, the man who pushed for the referendum, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune is hospitalized in Germany after several people in his administration showed symptoms of the virus. The 74-year-old's exact ailment and whereabouts are unclear, though his office said in a statement Thursday his status is “reassuring.”
For many Algerians, the most dramatic new measure is one allowing the Algerian military to intervene abroad, in U.N. or African Union peacekeeping operations, a major change from the current doctrine of non-interference. The military has long played a key role in Algeria, and military chief Gen. Said Bengriha has campaigned around the country for a “yes" vote.
The revision of the constitution was among 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.
In a final campaign rally Wednesday, Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerrad said it will “make it possible to definitively turn the page on the old practices of management of public affairs, with the emergence of new institutions and new methods of exercising responsibilities based on democracy, competence, transparency.”
He insisted that it “reflects the major demands” of the Hirak protest movement, and will allow young people and non-governmental actors more of a say in Algerian policies.
Hirak activists and their supporters, who want a wholesale overhaul of Algeria's leadership, see the referendum as an effort to look progressive while leaving the overall power structure in place.
“It is a denial of democracy,” professor Rachid Tlemçani told The Associated Press. “This revision is cosmetics to give a new face to the same system, which will not change.”
Some 23.5 million Algerian voters are eligible in to take part, though turnout is expected to be low because of the calls for a boycott, a lackluster campaign — and worries about the virus, which is linked to at least 1,964 deaths in Algeria and has infected more than 57,000 people.
Voting stations include primary schools that were disinfected for the referendum, with masks required.
Voting began Friday in the sparsely populated Algerian desert, as election officials traveled in all-terrain vehicles to reach remote voters. Nearly 1 million Algerian voters abroad were allowed to start voting Saturday.
Initial results are expected after polls close Sunday night.