The re-election of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to a third term on April 9, 2009 was not a surprise. Nor was Bouteflika’s high margin of victory—90.2 percent of the vote, with an official participation rate of 74.5 percent. These figures were far too high to be credible, and the opposition estimated that only about 24 percent of eligible voters had cast their ballots. In comparison, the official turnout in the 2007 parliamentary elections was 35 percent, and only 15 percent according to the opposition. Whatever the true numbers may be, the election revealed two important facts about the state of Algeria today:  the irrelevance of opposition parties, and the insecurity of the government. Bouteflika was truly worried about the possibility that voters would heed calls to boycott the elections and spared no efforts to ensure a high rate of participation. In a surprising way, this fear of abstention led the president to pay an unusual amount of attention to voters. For the first time in 47 years under the same ruling elite, Bouteflika pleaded for voter participation, telling citizens to “vote for me or against me, but express your choice.”

During the 2009 campaign, Bouteflika portrayed Algeria as a country with a high level of security and stability, a flourishing economy fueled by oil and gas exports, and low external debt thanks to a vigorous reimbursement program. But this was only the façade painted on a crumbling building, just as the façades of houses on the main streets were painted immediately before campaign visits by the president, with the rears and interior of the buildings left to deteriorate. What Algerian citizens actually experience in their daily lives is 75 percent unemployment among the population under 30 years of age, a rising number of young people fleeing the country as illegal immigrants, repression of strikes and economic riots, censorship and lack of personal freedom, continuing terrorist activity, and potatoes selling at €1 a kilo when the average salary is only €150 a month. 

Just like the 1999 presidential elections, when six of the presidential candidates running against Bouteflika withdrew from the elections claiming fraud, the opposition parties were unable to capitalize on the popular discontent. In 2009, the opposition was extremely weak, fielding little-known candidates with no credibility. Hamas, the Islamist party that officially placed second in the 1995 elections, did not even contest the 2009 elections, because it has become a member of the “presidential alliance” alongside the National Democratic Alliance (RND) of Bouteflika and the Front of National Liberation (FLN), the former unity party that dates back to the 1950s. The two Islamist candidates who were allowed to run had no grassroots legitimacy; one was Mohamed Said, whose party was created only two months before the launch of the campaign and has still not been registered. In addition, a Trotskyite candidate, Louisa Hanoune, was allowed to challenge Bouteflika in the elections, but only after she voted yes to the constitutional amendment allowing him to run for a third term. 

The opposition’s attempts to organize an election boycott did not succeed either.  Two leftist secular parties, the Front of Socialist Forces (FFS) and the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), tried to organize demonstrations to denounce what they called “the election masquerade.” The demonstrations were prevented by the Ministry of Interior and did not resonate much with the population, anyway. A large number of young first-time voters did not know much about these parties and did not respond. The call for a boycott by Abbassi Madani and Ali Benhadj, former leaders of the radical and now dissolved Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) also elicited a limited response, particularly as the main theme of Bouteflika’s campaign was its amnesty policy, seen as the key to his success in restoring peace in Algeria in the aftermath of the strife of the 1990s, of which the FIS had been part. Even the army did not try to openly exert control over the elections as it had done in the past. In the 2004 elections, the generals had been reluctant to give Bouteflika a second mandate and supported Ali Benflis, the prime minister running against Bouteflika. In 2009, many generals accepted a withdrawal from the political arena and approved Bouteflika, in exchange for their children retaining control over the country’s largest businesses.

Although Bouteflika could not possibly have lost the 2009 elections, he still cared deeply about the outcome. Worried that an election boycott and a high number of abstentions would undermine the international legitimacy he had gained by restoring security in Algeria and joining international counterterrorism efforts, he wanted to show that he enjoyed massive support. Rather than engaging in an ideological debate with the other candidates, he put himself above all political parties. He decided to run in the elections as an independent candidate and used the state apparatus as his campaign machine. Government ministers organized some 8,000 meetings in the three-week campaign, mobilizing public institutions, government-controlled media, and even mosques, and rallying 5,000 NGOs to his candidacy.

Bouteflika did not draw on new ideas to persuade his people, but instead used money to buy support. He doubled the salaries of members of parliament before asking them to modify the constitution allowing him to run for a third term. He promised to build one million housing units, to create three million jobs, and to secure $105 billion in investments by the end of the new term in 2014. During the campaign he also erased the farmers’ debts, offered to double students’ scholarships, and to reduce airfares for Algerians in the diaspora coming home for the holidays. Even if these promises lacked credibility due to the limited achievements of his first two terms, he had shown in the past that he would reward his supporters. Big corporations that had supported him in 2004 gained markets and financial help from the government. As a result, the powerful Forum des Chefs d’Entreprises, a business association, announced that it would officially fund Bouteflika’s 2009 presidential campaign, something it had never done previously. Some of the association’s members posted large pictures of Bouteflika on their buildings and buses, and transformed their stores into campaign headquarters. Many members of the 2009 presidential support committees received free apartments and some were even former terrorists pardoned under the Bouteflika amnesty law.

Most people who chose to support Bouteflika did so because they felt he was assured of victory and was viewed as “having brought back security to the country.” These supporters are not members of a party and do not seek to belong to one. As citizens, they cannot rely on the weakened national institutions or on alternative opposition programs. They chose instead to be the president’s clients to find jobs and get houses. Some young people even supported the president as a form of temporary employment, receiving 1,000 dinars (about $13) to attend meetings or hang posters, while government employees performed these tasks out of fear of losing their jobs.
The international community paid little attention to the Algerian elections. In 1999, the United States and the European Union supported Bouteflika because he promised to consolidate peace and open the country’s economy. Despite his success in making Algeria a crucial partner in the struggle against terrorism, Algeria’s foreign relations have been deteriorating for a decade. Bouteflika’s refusal to reopen the Algerian–Moroccan border makes economic cooperation among Maghreb countries difficult. The country’s reluctance to participate in the Union for the Mediterranean and the European Neighborhood Policy has disappointed the European Union. Algeria has not yet become a WTO member, and many foreign investors are leaving the country over worries about new laws imposing heavy taxes on foreign companies.

Bouteflika’s request for international election observers to give legitimacy to the 2009 elections was not heeded. The United Nations, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the United States, and the European Union had sent observers in 1999 and 2004, but they had been unable to prevent election fraud and decided not to participate this time. After the announcement of Bouteflika’s victory, the United States expressed concern over allegations of fraud, but refused to comment further.

Bouteflika’s re-election has proven that he can control the electoral process, but it is unlikely to give him the national and international legitimacy he craves. He is unlikely to be able to continue redistributing funds to paper over the weaknesses of the institutions and the economy, particularly in the midst of the global economic crisis. Algeria needs concrete economic reforms and more political openness so that problems can be discussed and tackled. The large number of young people who boycotted the elections in particular need jobs and a future, and have no interest in the regime’s old mythologies of security, terrorism and revolution. If election promises of stability lead to stagnation again, Algerians may become more disinterested in official politics than they already are and will attempt to bring about reform through violence, as happened in 1988.