Algeria’s Election: The Old Man Won’t Go Away
NOT surprisingly for a country that lost a million people in its struggle for independence in 1954-1962 and perhaps another 200,000 in its later civil war at the end of the century, humour in Algeria tends to be darkly cynical. And not surprisingly the presidential election set for April 17th has prompted plenty of bitter laughs. The almost certain winner, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, has been president for the past 15 of his 77 years. Yet apart from brief, inaudible television clips of official gatherings, he has scarcely been heard from in nearly two years. He did not even attend his campaign’s concluding rally near Algiers, the capital. Bused-in supporters were treated instead to a speech he recorded in 1999. “Technology in Algeria is so advanced that even our president is virtual,” explained a bemused commentator on Facebook. Such comments should not be dismissed as facile. Many Algerians regard Mr Bouteflika with a grudging fondness; after all, he has been in politics since serving as foreign minister in the 1960s, and he did help bring the ghastly bloodshed of the 1990s to an end. But they remain wary of the shadow-play that is Algerian politics.
This election campaign, for instance, has carried a veneer of democratic practice, with six varied candidates bidding for the top prize. But the oil-rich Algerian state, with its legacy of one-party rule and legions of officials all carefully vetted for loyalty by an omnipresent secret police, tilts the outcome heavily towards the candidate anointed by “Le Pouvoir”, as Algerians call the circle of senior generals and security chiefs who actually run the country. Small wonder that Mr Bouteflika won his last two elections, in 2004 and 2009, with 85% and 90% of the vote, amid meagre turnouts and a strong whiff of fraud.
The question in many minds is why Algeria’s hidden puppet-masters should again have backed Mr Bouteflika, despite the fact that he had a bad stroke a year ago and may be unable to complete another five-year term. The widely whispered answer is that divisions within Le Pouvoir make it hard to agree on an alternative: someone who could present a façade of democratic legitimacy and benign governance, while quietly letting the country’s ensconced nomenclatura manage its fiefs.
In recent months some of these divisions have come into unusual public relief. A reshuffle of military posts last year, followed in January by a burst of criticism from Mr Bouteflika’s stalwarts directed at the man long seen as the kingmaker, General Muhammad “Toufiq” Mediène, head of the feared military intelligence service, exposed tensions. Open press criticism of the ailing president’s bid for a fourth term, as well as of apparent top-level corruption, was rumoured to have been sanctioned by General Mediène. But these cracks appear now to have been largely papered over.
Despite the advantages Mr Bouteflika enjoys, Algeria still has a margin of freedom just broad enough to allow for some political jostling. His main challenger, Ali Benflis, a former prime minister, has loudly warned against electoral fraud. In one campaign speech he predicted “a violent earthquake that will shake the foundations of those who support a president for life.” This prompted a heated riposte from Mr Bouteflika, who accused his opponent of “terrorism via television”.
Most of Algeria’s myriad small opposition parties, both Islamist and secular, urged supporters to boycott the vote. In any case, they carry little weight. Perhaps more challenging is the emergence of a new, non-affiliated pressure group that has denounced not just these elections, but the “entire masquerade” of Algeria’s politics.
Launched only last month, Barakat, meaning “enough” in Algeria’s Arabic dialect, is modelled on peaceful civil movements that helped topple such rulers as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Its internet presence and public rallies have yet to attract more than a few thousand, but its leaders say they are planning for the longer run. Le Pouvoir is worried: a newspaper that hosted a Barakat press conference was quickly punished by the withdrawal of all government advertising, a vital source of revenue in a country whose oil wealth and socialist policies have stunted private business.
Algeria is not a happy country. Periodic riots, ethnic clashes between Arabs and Berbers and the lingering danger of jihadist terrorism attest to festering social ills. For the time being, however, memories of still worse times make Algerians too timid, by and large, to mount a greater challenge to the powers-that-be. (The Economist)
Algeria: Violent Election-Eve Crackdown
Algerian authorities on the eve of the April 17, 2014, presidential election forcibly dispersed a demonstration against a fourth term for President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The authorities should abandon such repressive practices by rescinding the 2001 decree banning all demonstrations in Algiers, the capital, and by allowing people to exercise their right to peaceful assembly anywhere in Algeria. The violent crackdown brings into focus the repressive tactics commonly used by the security forces. However, in the period leading up to the election, the authorities have responded unevenly to demonstrations. Since mid-March, they tolerated several public rallies in Algiers. Those included some organized by groups that favored boycotting the election and by others united under the banner of Barakat (Enough), a movement opposed to a fourth term for the president. In several cities, police forces merely stood alongside the protest marches without intervening. Before mid-March, the security forces had systematically blocked or dispersed the Barakat, or the pro-boycott activists who tried to demonstrate in Algiers, forcibly hauling them into police vans and releasing them a few hours later. (Human Rights Watch)
Algeria’s New Era
Algeria’s long-ruling President is cruising to victory in the polls. But the outside world shouldn’t be fooled: the authorities are losing control.
The election outcome will not, however, disguise the fact that this ruling configuration is already deep in a transitional crisis. Since the military seized power in a coup in 1992, it has been unable to create legitimate power-sharing mechanisms. Until now, it has mainly relied on tools aimed at maintaining the status quo. The army and the intelligence services have granted wide-ranging powers to the presidency but have in fact continued to govern by proxy. They have granted amnesties to insurgent Islamists with the intent of avoiding a broader reckoning with the traumas of the past. And they have continued to use the redistribution of natural resource rents to corrupt society. While this strategy probably helped the regime to survive, it now stands in the way of a much-needed renewal. The leadership’s focus on retaining power has produced countless problems. Growing street protests and rising inner-regime conflicts are compelling Algeria’s rulers to redistribute power yet again in order to stay in place. The sense of crisis is compounded by an imminent generational shift. Bouteflika is too sick to finish his potential fourth mandate. Gaid Salah, the army chief-of-staff, and Tewfik Mediene, the head of the intelligence services, the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS), are 78 and 74, respectively. Whether the transition to come is conducted under the guidance of the army or negotiated with demonstrators, the image of stability Algerian rulers have tried to convey to the international community for so many years can no longer be regarded as a given. (Foreign Policy)
Opposition Cries Fraud in Algerian Election
The main opposition candidate in Algeria’s presidential elections cried foul in mid-April hours after voting ended, alleging massive fraud and vowing to reject any results announced. Ali Benflis told supporters at his headquarters that preliminary information indicated fraud on a grand scale with grave irregularities across the country. “Our history will remember this date as a great crime against the nation by stealing the voice of the citizens and blocking popular will,” he said, while fireworks from celebrating supporters of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, his opponent, could be heard in the background. The national commission charged with supervising the elections, however, insisted that aside from a few incidents, the election went smoothly with just 130 complaints. Turnout was 51.7 percent of the 23 million registered voters, according to the Interior Minister. Benflis’ speech essentially amounted to a concession of defeat, though he vowed to use “all peaceful political means as well as legal avenues” to resist the results. The election appears to have been the most competitive presidential contest in Algeria’s recent memory with Benflis putting up a spirited fight against an ailing Bouteflika who had the full might of the powerful state to make up for his weakened condition. (…) Sonia Izem, a middle-aged woman in a dark headscarf, said she was voting for Bouteflika because she, too, remembered when Bab el-Oued was a battleground between security forces and Islamists and because she felt the rampant corruption in the country would be less during the fourth term. (Bloomberg Businessweek)
Algerians Vote for Stability
In mid-April, Algerians went to the polls for presidential elections. Few, if any, seasoned observers think the outcome is in doubt: Abdelaziz Bouteflika will secure a fourth five-year term as president. The real drama took place earlier this year when Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal made the surprising announcement that Bouteflika would stand again, despite being out of the public eye since suffering a stroke in 2013. Now, having survived the events of the Arab Spring, it appears Bouteflika and his regime will remain securely in power in the years to come. How have Bouteflika and the regime managed to survive the Arab Spring, and what are the prospects for the future? Data from three nationally representative public opinion surveys conducted as part of the Arab Barometer project shed light on these questions. The surveys reveal that although most Algerians are dissatisfied with the regime, they are much more satisfied than they were in the months following the Arab Spring. Now, unlike in early 2011, the vast majority of citizens want gradual reform, suggesting the public’s appetite for mass anti-regime protests has declined.
In the early months of the Arab Spring, some speculated Algeria might be the next regime to fall. Algeria’s economic and political situation closely mirrored the same toxic combination that felled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt: high unemployment, especially among the young, and a closed and unresponsive political system. (…) Just two years later, the picture had changed entirely. The most recent Arab Barometer survey, carried out from March through April 2013, reveals that opinion about the government has improved dramatically since its nadir in the months after the Arab Spring. Although the majority of Algerians remain dissatisfied with conditions in their country, their discontent has diminished. Four in 10 rate the government’s performance as good or very good, a 30-point increase over 2011. About three in 10 have favorable views of the government’s performance on narrowing the income gap (27 percent) and creating jobs (31 percent) up 17 points and 16 points respectively. The overall rate of satisfaction with the economic situation has also risen dramatically to 66 percent – more than double that of 2011. Increased happiness was not limited to the economy – 32 percent say the state of democracy and human rights is good or very good – a four fold increase from 2011. (Washington Post)