Algerian Elections: A Turning Point?

Parliamentary elections in Algeria have been set for May 10. They come at a very delicate moment in the political life of the country after the wave of changes that have affected practically all its neighbors.

The question of whether Algeria, one of North Africa’s most resilient authoritarian holdouts, will be the next to succumb to the Arab awakening, has been posed many times and so far only been answered in the negative. Explanations for Algeria’s imperviousness to the popular unrest that rocked its neighbor Tunisia are numerous. Some cite the population’s “fatigue” after a devastating civil war in the 1990s that left at least 150,000 casualties, paralyzed the economy, and cleaved a divisive split between secularists and Islamists which came close to fatally and irrevocably unraveling the social fabric and the unity of the Algerian state. Other skeptics of Algeria’s revolutionary potential refer to the “rentier state” explanation, that is, the capacity of the state to placate the economic grievances of the population by harnessing revenues from the sale of gas and oil to subsidize fuel and basic foods.

Another often heard reason for the lack of major revolts is the popularity of President Abdel Aziz Buteflika, who is widely credited with resolving the decade-long civil war and has somehow managed to successfully curb the overwhelming power of the military. While the “popularity” of the president may be somewhat exaggerated as well as the so-called “limits” he has imposed on the military, which is believed to be as powerful and shady as ever by many independent observers, it is regardless true that Algeria lacks a widely despised despot like Libya’s Qaddafi or Tunisia’s Ben Ali with the potential to become a lightening rod and focal point for the rage of the masses.

Each one of these reasons carry only part of the truth and all together give a partial picture of the status quo in Algeria. The reality is that of a country in grave difficulty, with an inefficient and dysfunctional economy that does not produce much and distributes the revenues from the sale of its natural resources in a corrupt and unequal way that intensifies the grievances and rage  of the growing class of impoverished Algerians.

The security situation, while has greatly improved since the early 2000s, is still vulnerable as evidenced by continuous attacks by terrorist groups and criminal organizations. The crisis in Libya and in the Sahel has exacerbated the already volatile situation by unleashing unregulated flows of weapons and armed migrants.

The political system is de facto paralyzed because of the illness of the president, which has impaired him from performing his duties, at times for weeks. There is no successor in sight and no clear or transparent procedure to appoint a new one. Rumors abound, therefore, igniting the struggle between various factions within the armed forces, the real powerbrokers, but also between the various factions of the elite. The result is a paralysis of decision-making at a time when leadership is desperately needed to tackle the difficult economic and social situation, both of which are rapidly deteriorating.

As a turning point and a possible solution to some of the problems, the attention is focusing on the May 10 legislative elections. Forty-four parties from across the ideological spectrum have registered to compete for the 462 seats of the Assemblee Populaire Nationale (APN).

The attention in particular is focused on two outcomes: the performance of the Islamists and that of the National Liberation Front (FLN).

The success of the Islamist parties in the neighboring countries has caused alarm among the elite in Algeria and has rattled public opinion of the western states, where citizens are fearful of the return of the dark years of the civil war. However, the fears of both constituencies are over-blown, and neither need worry.

The Islamist parties competing for the elections do not have anything in common with the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which dominated the first multiparty elections of 1990. They resemble more their Moroccan cousins of the Justice and Development Party (PJD) in their adherence to the principles of democracy, moderation, openness, and concern for building a distinctive “national character.” The latter in particular is stressed by the leadership of the Mouvement de la Societe pour la Paix (MPS) considered the Algerian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Bouguerra Soltani, the leader of the party, has strenuously defended the independence of his movement from any foreign influence and stressed the national character of Algeria’s brand of Islam, a unique product of a national history forged out of the necessity of overcoming and surviving a damaging legacy of violence and political malaise.

Close to the regime, the Movement of Society for Peace (MSP) has governed in coalition with the secular FLN of Abdelaziz Belkhadem and the National Rally for Democracy (RND) led by the current prime minister Ahmed Ouyahia. The MSP proposes a policy of moderation and has succeeded in uniting the Islamist front by including the two smaller parties of the Ennahdaand El Islah in a coalition called Alliance of Green Algeria with a political platform very distant from the radical Islamic values supported in the past by the (now outlawed) FIS.  

Given the weakness and co-optation of Algeria’s fragmented Islamist parties and projected low rates of voter turnout – based on a growing number of boycott campaigns and anecdotal reports of voter apathy –  it is doubtful that Algeria will see an Islamist “tsunami.” Furthermore, Algeria’s history of low voter turnout (35.6 percent in the 2007 parliamentary elections with an invalid ballot rate of more than 14 percent) does not bode well for voter mobilization in the upcoming election.

A more likely and important consequence of the elections could be clarification regarding Buteflika’s potential successors, which will depend to some extent on the FLN’s performance. Few Algerians expect Buteflika to run for a fourth term when his mandate expires in 2014, because of his deteriorating health. It is rumored that the favored candidate of the president and of his entourage is Abdelaziz Belkhadem, the Secretary-General of the FLN and long-time ally of Buteflika,  who is also very close to the Islamist parties.  His candidacy is contested by a strong faction within the party and by influential sectors of the army and of the business community.

It is evident thus that a successful performance by the FLN in the coming elections would crown Belkhadem as the clear successor to the president, while a loss or a poor performance would definitively sink his candidacy.

A lot is at stake therefore on May 10 but it concerns more the powers-that-be, or ‘pouvoir,’ than the people who, disillusioned and apathetic, remain on the margins. The unasked but most important question is: for how much longer?

Karim Mezran is a senior fellow with the Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East

Related Experts: Karim Mezran

Image: algeriacandidates.jpg