Algeria abolishes presidential term limits

Algeria abolishes presidential term limits

By ALFRED de MONTESQUIOU, AP, 12 november 2008

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — Algeria’s parliament overwhelmingly approved constitutional amendments that abolish presidential term limits, paving the way Wednesday for President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to seek a third term in spring elections.

Critics said the reform was a step away from democracy and favored the political and military elite that have long held power in this oil- and gas-rich North African country. They said the changes should have gone through a national referendum rather than parliament, which is strongly allied with the president.

They also viewed the decision to go through parliament as a sign the government knew the measure would not muster popular support. Several opposition leaders have boycotted legislative elections because of widespread fraud allegations. Some observers said a huge recent salary increase for lawmakers helped smooth passage of the elimination of the two-term limit.

The government said the 500-21 vote, with 8 abstentions, was lawful because the « limited amendments don’t affect the balance of powers. »

« This is a historic day for Algeria, » said the Bouteflika in a letter read to lawmakers after the vote broadcast live on national radio. The reform « will enshrine our democracy and (guarantee) solid and durable institutions. »

Said Sadi, the head of the RCD secular party and the sole opposition leader in parliament to publicly oppose the reform, described it as « a constitutional coup. »

He criticized procedures for the vote, saying the fact it was held by raised hands — instead of by secret ballot — prevented lawmakers from « exerting their free choice on this issue.

Bouteflika did not explicitly state he’d run for a third term in presidential elections scheduled for April. But he said the reform would boost « efficiency and stability.

Bouteflika, 71, became president in 1999 with the army’s support after a political campaign tarnished by fraud charges that drove his six rivals to pull out on the eve of the vote.

He was re-elected by a landslide in 2004 to serve five more years. International observers hailed that election as one of the Arab world’s cleanest despite persistent allegations of corruption and democratic abuses.

Supporters hail the president as a unifying figure and praise him for ending the civil war and pacifying national politics through a 2005 amnesty program.

Allies view his third term as a way to maintain stability and promote economic and social reform in Algeria, where a resurgent Islamist group linked to al-Qaida has redoubled its attacks and bombings over the past two years.

Other changes approved Wednesday include replacing the chief of government by a prime minister, boosting presidential powers over the cabinet and allowing the head of state to name several vice-prime-ministers.

The amended constitution also enshrines Algeria’s national anthem and its flag and guarantees the representation of women in politics.

Algeria’s current constitution was adopted in 1996 as the country was in a midst of a bloody civil war between the secular-leaning military and Islamists. The conflict killed up to 200,000 people over a decade.

Associated Press writer Aomar Ouali in Algiers contributed to this report.