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Algerian parliament passes constitutional reforms in near unanimous vote

Algeria's parliament overwhelmingly passed constitutional reforms that lawmakers have said will ensure democracy. Critics have countered that the changes entrench the power of army generals and the ruling party.

In a nearly unanimous vote, more than 500 Algerian lawmakers passed a raft of constitutional reforms that the government says will strengthen democracy,

however opponents are skeptical.

The reforms are intended to address a number of longstanding issues, including election reforms and official language recognition.

Algeria's bicameral legislators passed the reform measures by a vote of 499-2 with 16 abstentions.

Among the more important changes is

a reintroduction of a two-term limit for the president,

which was suspended twice so current President Abdelaziz Bouteflika could seek a third and then a fourth term, which he was elected to in 2014.

Bouteflika is Algeria's longest-serving president, having been in office since 1999. But the 78-year-old leader is in poor health, and his current five-year term will be his last.

Indeed, he has rarely been seen in public in recent years, including

during the last election, which he won with 81 percent of the vote,

on a turnout of less than 52 percent.

Algerien Angela Merkel Besuch Präsident Abdelaziz Bouteflika 2008

Bouteflika and Chancellor Angela Merkel embrace during her departure from the presidential palace in Algiers

Both figures represent a significant decline from the 2009 election, which he won with more than 90 percent of the vote and a turnout in excess of 74 percent.

Democracy guaranteed

The new reforms also call for an independent electoral commission and explicit guarantees of the right to freedom of assembly and a free press.

The reforms also require the president nominate a prime minister from the largest party in parliament.

"This project crowns the process of political reforms promised by the head of state," Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal told parliamentarians.

The reforms guaranteed "democratic change by means of free elections" and were "a bulwark against the vagaries of political change," he said, referring to parts of the constitution that cannot be altered if Islamists form a majority.

A looming electoral victory by Islamic extremists in 1991 prompted the military to shut down the election and install a secular president, unleashing a bloody civil war that may have killed as many as 200,000 throughout the 1990s - until Bouteflika gained power.

Of the constitutional reforms,

critics have said they are little more than window dressing,

leaving army generals and Bouteflika's National Liberation Front party with undue power and influence.

The new constitution also recognizes Amazigh, the language of the indigenous Berber population, as an official language alongside Arabic.

As

Bouteflika's rule appears to be winding down,

there are growing fears of instability in the mainly Muslim country of 40 million, a key energy producer whose economy has been hit hard by plunging oil prices.

bik/sms (AFP, Reuters)

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