Algeria’s 77-year old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is running for his fourth term. His renewed candidacy indicates that Algerian political elites, at least for now, are not seeking a path to internal system reform. Bouteflika’s third term (2009-2014) has been marked primarily by efforts to fend off spillover effects of the Arab Spring. To that effect, the President’s economic handout followed the classic strategy pursued by states rich in oil and gas. Reform prospects remain dim with a fourth Bouteflika term. Only minor adjustments are expected, such as a constitutional amendment establishing the post of a vice-president to ensure a smooth transition to his second-in-command in case of Bouteflika’s sudden death. And given that Algeria has several competing power centers—the presidency and the military, with internal divisions in the latter—the real question is whether the present system is capable of producing a reform process from within. More specifically, is a consensus possible on such key steps as strengthening the judiciary and seriously tackling corruption? Current pre-election dynamics indicate dim prospects for either consensus or reform, for various reasons.
Primarily, in the public arena, an already fragmented political class has been further split. Cleavages have deepened between Bouteflika supporters and opponents among the political, military, administrative, and economic elites. These divisions run through the National Liberation Front (FLN) party, its satellites, the entire “famille révolutionnaire” (social groups and organizations drawing prestige and privileges from a link to the war of independence), and economic lobbies (e.g. Forum des Chefs d’Entreprises). Verbal aggression and mudslinging in the private printed press and online have reached unprecedented levels. No matter which side emerges victorious in the elections, it will face substantial resistance by the other. Political blockage rather than reform is thus likely to continue.
Secondly, the democracy-oriented candidates emerging from civil society have merely been by-standers, and have all either dropped out of the race or have not managed to meet the formal requirements for candidacy. For the status quo actors there is little interest in hindering such candidates from participating in the first phase of the electoral “spectacle,” as their presence serves to project an image of political pluralism and competition. It also enhances the general cacophony the Algerian regime thrives on. Among political figures and activists calling for reform, there are two camps. The first supports Benflis’s candidacy, a former prime minister and former secretary general of the FLN, runs on a platform of strengthening rule of law and increasing political freedoms, in the hope of at least perfunctory reform. The second considers Benflis part of the system and is calling for an election boycott—these include the Movement of Society for Peace (MSP; the strongest party in the fragmented and declining legal Islamist party scene), the secular-liberal Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), and those presidential candidates who are disillusioned and have withdrawn of the race (Ahmed Benbitour and Soufiane Djilali, among others). With Tunisia in mind, supporters of an election boycott are hopeful that peaceful mass mobilization could trigger a transition, yet so far, this kind of mobilization—though gaining momentum—has been too fragmented to constitute a serious threat to the status quo. If the government harasses boycott activists of the Barakat (“Enough”) movement, it is for fear of low voter turnout delegitimizing the election.
Thirdly, public and behind-the-scenes dynamics point in different directions. While the political class and social elites publicly engage in confrontation, important decision makers in the military, in the FLN and other system parties, and in the economic sphere appear to have reached consensus behind the scenes on a fourth term for Bouteflika. His decision to run implies that he is sure of substantial backing among key military figures, who feel he alone can preserve the political status quo and preserve their vested interests. Some have pointedly described the Algerian regime as a cartel whose field of action is the state; thus desperately needed reforms toward strengthening the independence of the judicial system or effectively fighting corruption would attack the very foundations of existing interests. These key decision makers behind the scenes are not ready to take any risk of true reform, as shown by the fact that they did not back former Prime Minister Mouloud Hamrouche, the figure most apt to forge consensus and lead Algeria towards democratic transition. He was instrumental in initiating the Algerian Spring 25 years ago (thus far the most democratic period in the country’s history), has broad respect among reform-oriented actors and much of the fragmented Islamist camp, and also has good ties to important figures in the military. Though expected by many to stand for election, he did not see sufficient elite backing for his reform program.
Finally, the election dynamics demonstrated the broad acceptance within the political class—and important parts of the population—of the military as the backbone of the system. When the FLN’s leader, Amar Saadani, in February unsparingly attacked the DRS (Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité, umbrella for the intelligence services) for being omnipresent in politics and failing to prevent major terrorist attacks, the outcry was remarkable. Presidential candidates, including reformers, party leaders, the private press, and the President himself, severely condemned this attack on a “key national institution” and defended its head, General Mohamed “Toufik” Mediène. Yet Saadani was merely saying what many in the political class, including those now defending the DRS, say behind closed doors. Only a few actors, such as the marginal RCD and the Islamist MSP, did not join the choir. Former presidential candidate and retired general Mohand Taher Yala openly called upon the army to stop the President from entering a fourth term. More nuanced, Mouloud Hamrouche declared that a transition could only work with strong support by the younger generation of generals, though whether this generation is likely to push for a democratic transition is far from clear. Apparent efforts by President Bouteflika to push older generals into retirement speak to his confidence that the younger ones will not conspire against him or undermine the existing system.
Given the dynamics described above, even a president committed to reform would struggle to forge a consensus toward transition. The Algerian electorate is concerned about stability, fearing a return to the violence of the 1990s, and they are unlikely to support any potentially destabilizing reorientations, even if that means foregoing a chance to pursue reforms. Algeria’s challenges range from ethnic conflict, social unrest, and security threats to the dramatic rise in domestic energy consumption and changes in the global energy markets, which together increasingly jeopardize the government’s policy of buying loyalty and quelling social unrest through rent distribution. By not risking reform to address these challenges, Algeria’s decision makers are taking a much bigger risk of renewed destabilization.
Isabelle Werenfels is the head of the Middle East and Africa research division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs and author of Managing Instability in Algeria: Elites and political change since 1995.