Algeria’s preordained election prods debate

The upcoming election in Algeria leaves the people without a voice, but is at least sparking some debate.

23 March 2014 marked the Algerian presidential campaign’s official debut. The campaign really began, however, on 27 April 2013, the day President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in power since 1999, was flown to Paris following a vascular-cerebral accident that was to keep him abroad for over two months. His absence ignited a debate about a likely vacancy, prompting would-be leaders to position themselves for possible upcoming elections. Yet, despite proclaiming during a speech in Setif that “his generation was finished”, suggesting his desire to yield power to the youth, and despite his undeniable physical decline, Bouteflika is seeking a fourth term.

Is Algeria condemned to be led by the same class that has ruled since its independence? Is the powerful system that has been in place since 1962 susceptible to change? Do the numerous obstacles that the country must face necessitate a radical overhaul of this system? Against this backdrop, with the European Union and key Western actors standing idly by, a combative electoral campaign has been waged for weeks, and a crucial debate on the future of this country, an undeniable regional power, is now taking place.

One candidacy too many

Bouteflika benefits from a number of important sources of support that, given the regime’s nature, guarantee his re-election, even if it is increasingly seen as another slap in the face for a people who no longer have any say over their future.

Bouteflika has the backing of wealthy Algerian businessmen, many of whom offer sizable financial contributions exceeding tens of millions of dollars

The president's candidacy was first validated by the army, which, since 1962, has led the country, building up and destroying presidencies based on its own agenda. Bouteflika also enjoys support from a diverse set of organisations and political parties, including the National Liberation Front (FLN), the General Union of Algerian Workers (UGTA), the National Organisation of Mujahideen (ONM), and the National Rally for Democracy (RND). Public media and multiple student, women, and farmer movements have also shown their support for the president. And, most crucially, Bouteflika has the backing of wealthy Algerian businessmen, many of whom offer sizable financial contributions exceeding tens of millions of dollars, and the political backing of Mourad Medelci, Bouteflika’s former minister of foreign affairs and president of the Constitutional Council. This man is particularly important because he has the power to invoke Article 88 of the constitution, which states that if the president is unable to carry out his duties due to serious and long-lasting illness, the Constitutional Council, upon verifying the existence of such an illness, is to propose unanimously to the parliament that the president be removed from office.  

Yet, deeming Bouteflika’s candidacy an affront and his electoral campaign a farce, an opposition, previously marginalised and hampered by infighting, has managed to mobilise around a common protest movement that includes Islamists, secularists, and leftists to call for a boycott of the election. Indeed, neither the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), a secular opposition party, nor any Algerian Islamist group – Ennahdha, the Justice and Development Front (FJD), led by Abdallah Djaballah, who came third in the 2004 presidential race, and the Movement for a Society of Peace (MSP, formerly Hamas), an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood – are participating in the electoral campaign, an unprecedented disengagement since political pluralism was introduced at the end of the 1980s.

In fact, in a new twist, even among the ranks of power that back Bouteflika’s candidacy there is some opposition for the first time. Dissonant voices among members of his inner circle have spoken out against a fourth presidential term, shedding light on new fractures in the cogs of a system that until now appeared coherent and united.

Bouteflika began to neutralise his opposition in 2013 by accelerating the retirement of a number of senior officers likely to pose a threat to the continuation of his regime

But, with his upcoming candidacy in mind, Bouteflika began to neutralise his opposition in 2013 by accelerating the retirement of a number of senior officers likely to pose a threat to the continuation of his regime. But some of these retirees, such as generals Hocine Benhadid and Rachid Benyelles, have not hesitated to express reservations over Bouteflika’s expected candidacy. The former president of the Republic, General Liamine Zeroual, alongside other officials – notably former prime ministers Mouloud Hamrouche and Sid Ahmed Ghozali – have called for greater democratisation. General Mohand Tahar Yala, meanwhile – retired since 2005 but still considered a powerbroker in the Algerian army – drafted a severe indictment of the regime in which Bouteflika was described as “a president incapable of performing his duties, who has empowered a national mafia which governs in the shadows, illegally and unconstitutionally, and has monopolised state institutions to organise an electoral masquerade whose result is predetermined.”

At the same time, the struggle orchestrated by the FLN and the presidential camp against the intelligence agency (known by its French acronym, the DRS), whose hierarchy is also suspected of opposing a fourth term, is indicative of the DRS’s rift with the executive. The disagreement erupted in January 2013 over Bouteflika’s decision to allow French Rafale fighter jets, en route to Mali, to enter Algerian airspace. The FLN’s smear campaign against the DRS and its chief has not only made the disaccord at the top levels public – between the army, the FLN (itself prey to spirited internal divisions), and the DRS – but has also exposed the significant schisms among those in power and within the regime itself. In such conditions, the determination of the president’s inner circle to push for such a divisive candidacy reflects a coup de force, which, for some, amounts to an attempted coupd'état. At the very least, Bouteflika’s bid for re-election will have succeeded in creating a debate on the nature and internal mechanisms of this regime, while, at the same time, paving the way for the emergence of a civil society and its participation in the political debate.

The birth of a civil society?

As in all other Arab countries, the Algerian regime has never had to face a strong, independent civil society capable of challenging its legitimacy and able to form a meaningful opposition. An authoritarian, closed off, suspicious, and paranoid system has disregarded the Algerian people, who have in turn cut themselves off from their leaders over the years. Yet, a society that for a long time has been robbed of its legitimate right of expression seems nonetheless primed to adopt a new and acute civil consciousness. But, even if the Barakat protest movement, launched on 22 February by a group of citizens for whom a third presidential term on the heels of “constitutional rape” in 2008 was already too much to take, has gained some momentum and visibility, it remains quite weak overall. Its demonstrations have so far failed to draw more than a few hundred people, despite the media attention that the movement’s founder, Amira Bouraoui, has received. Nonetheless, faced with a population mostly divided between political apathy and fatalistic support for Bouteflika, Barakat offers new energy, promising and stimulating, even if, for the time being, it is a small, elitist group.

Two key challenges facing groups wishing to mobilise against the government are Algeria’s social inequalities and poor internet connectivity – at best, only four million of 37 million Algerians are active on social networking sites. But those who do have access have used the internet to express indignation over a fourth term. The fiery commentary, caricatures, satirical images and videos, and parodies of all kinds that have flooded the internet attest to the vitality of Algerian society and to the talents of its youth in matters of derision and dark humour. The mockeries are proof of unprecedented political contestation that more than anything reflects the immense frustration and hopelessness of a youth deprived of work prospects and a future. The “Anti-4” voices that emerged during the electoral campaign are an example of this, but due to lack of co-ordination between one another, they have so far been unable to organise themselves into a united political front. Thus, far from representing an opposition capable of pressuring the Constitutional Council to commence impeachment procedures, and without any resources to mitigate the army’s eventual crackdown in the event of public dissent, Algerian civil society remains in its infancy.

What stability?

Even if Algerians truly and deeply aspire for change, their desire for stability as a result of the civil war and fears of spillover from the region’s increasingly volatile conflicts makes much of the population wary of any upheaval. Bouteflika's supporters know this, and, as in 2008, Bouteflika is again using stability as an electoral platform. But although the regime regularly denounces nefarious “foreign powers seeking to weaken Algeria” and the rise in terrorism in the Sahel, Bouteflika seems to ignore the troubles in Kabylie, the riots in Ghardaia, and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s increased presence inside the country, the direct results of his poor performance in managing the interior economic and security climate. He cannot, however, continue to ignore the real threats to stability presented by the division between the regime and the people, deepening inequalities, new forms of extremism, the dysfunction of an economy based on oil income and plagued by unemployment, illegal trade, corruption, and nepotism, and the massive deficits in education, health, and housing, which are undeniably weakening Algeria’s social fabric and threatening to cause an implosion. With so many challenges, the presidential circle’s tenacity to maintain Bouteflika’s power is hardly promising for stability, and the elections will only exacerbate tensions. Worse, the violence that has punctuated the electoral campaign does not bode well in an environment of continued political deadlock and socioeconomic peril. With this in mind, it is difficult to predict what the army’s reaction would be if calls for a transition are not convincing enough to help the country emerge from crisis.

Transition, revolution, or status quo?

Among the six candidates with their hats in the ring, Bouteflika’s principal rival is his former prime minister, Ali Benflis, who, while faring poorly in the 2004 elections, benefits this time from support from within the regime itself. In line with his belief that politically excluding a segment of the population is unacceptable, Benflis aims to expand Algeria’s political sphere and to restore the right of the ex-Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) to participate in political life. Although Benflis has gained some national support, he is still perceived as part of the system by large segments of the population who consider him responsible (as head of the government at the time) for the “Black Spring” of 2001 in Kabylie, when a government crackdown against unrest resulted in the death of more than one hundred youth. His detractors also accuse him, as a candidate in the presidential race, of bringing credibility to a preordained ballot that promotes a smooth transition with a new “consensual” constitution.

This election, which everyone agrees is already a done deal, will at least have opened the door for a genuine debate on the country’s future. Will Algeria enter a consensus-driven peaceful transition process towards institutional reform? Or will it see the radical transformation of a structure that many consider obsolete, impermeable, and illegitimate? Indeed, the risks of systemic collapse are greater than ever, and many think that the time has come to effect change not only through a reform from within but through a comprehensive systematic overhaul of the system.

One could also contend that despite minor opposition groups, the status quo remains unshakable in Algeria. Algerians also know that the creation of a vice-presidential office, whether it be held by Abdelmalek Sellal or Ahmed Ouyahia, the two favourites for this new post, is only being created to ensure that the regime can carry on even if president Bouteflika’s health deteriorates severely.  Indeed, Algerians are being called upon to cast their ballots for a presidential candidate of their choice even though the result has likely been pre-determined. In reaction the Socialist Forces Front (FFS), the oldest opposition party, is keeping its distance from the elections, calling for neither participation nor boycott, because the 17 April vote “is only decisive for the regime” in power. This will also explain the high abstention rate that is likely to mark the vote.

In any case, the legitimacy of the system has been questioned, and it will remain a subject of political debate, regardless of the outcome on Election Day.


For the French version of this piece, please click here.

Mansouria Mokhefi is a visiting fellow with the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). She specialises in the Maghreb.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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