Algiers, Algeria – Algerian opposition parties are expected to meet today in what has been described as the biggest gathering of forces opposing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The conference is being organised by the Coordination for Liberties and Democratic Transition, an umbrella group led by five opposition parties – Hams, Jil Jadid, RCD, El Nahda, and El Adala – as well as Ahmed Benbitour, Algeria’s prime minister from 1999-2000.
“This conference is a new chapter in Algerian politics; it is the fruit of an arduous work, but it is also the beginning of a road map that paves the way for a real democracy in Algeria. It is gathering politicians from different backgrounds, ideologies and programmes, something [that would have been] impossible to do decades ago,” Jil Jadid’s Sakhri said.
After Bouteflika was re-elected in April to his fourth consecutive term as president, political divisions have deepened in Algeria, with both boycotters of the election and the president’s opponents sceptical of promised reforms and an expected update of the constitution.
Conference participants are expected to include political party leaders, former heads of government, such as Ali Benflis, Sid Ahmed Ghozali, Mouloud Hamrouche and Mokdad Sifi, human rights activists, FIS party members, constitutionalists, activists and academics.
According to organisers, the conference aims to break the political, institutional, and socio-economic deadlocks in Algeria, and create a new, unified bloc of the Algerian opposition.
In advance of the meeting, the main groups created a political manifesto, known as the “conference platform”, which called for “the appointment of a transitional government, the establishment of a consensual constitution for Algeria… and the creation of an independent commission to supervise elections”.
goal is not bringing a response to the political crisis and the institutional deadlock the country is facing; these proposals are… a diversion.”]
According to the state’s official election results, Bouteflika was re-elected with 81 percent support, while national voter turnout reached almost 52 percent.
Opponents have accused the government of voter fraud, however, and claim that the turnout did not exceed 25 percent. Participation was down from 75 percent in the 2009 presidential elections.
“In Algeria, it is very difficult to speak about a real opposition. This is one of the reasons why it was very easy to impose Bouteflika’s new term,” Kamal Benkoussa, a former London-based financier who returned to Algeria in September 2013 to enter the presidential elections race and later withdrew his candidacy.
“The opposition has never fulfilled Algerians’ aspirations. I strongly believe that if the opposition had a real vision of the future, with a solid programme, institutional and economic reforms, we could have avoided this fourth term [for Bouteflika],” he said.
On May 15, Ahmed Ouyahia, one of Algeria’s most prominent politicians and former prime minister, invited all Algerian political factions to debate an updated draft constitution, and submit proposals. Recently named as director of the president’s office, Ouyahia’s announcement was largely seen as an attempt by Bouteflika to integrate opposition parties into a national dialogue. Official consultations to formulate the reforms began on June 2.
While some political figures accepted the invitation, such as Abdelaziz Belaid and Moussa Touati, both candidates in last April’s elections, most of Bouteflika’s opponents and opposition leaders – including secular and Islamist rivals – rejected his proposal.
“It is absolute political nonsense,” said Ali Benflis, Bouteflika’s main presidential opponent who garnered 12 percent of the vote in April 17 elections, in a press release. “Their [the initiators of the constitution review project] goal is not bringing a response to the political crisis and the institutional deadlock the country is facing; these proposals are… a diversion.”
Although Algeria allowed some opposition parties to be formed after its independence from France – like the Front des Forces Socialistes (FFS), Algeria’s oldest opposition party founded in 1963 and the leading party in the country’s Berber regions – successive governments have cracked down on their political opponents. FFS, for example was banned until 1990, before coming back to the political scene, weakened by multiple internal crises.
While constitutional reforms in 1989 first instituted the multiparty system in Algeria, the mainstream opposition is often described as heterogeneous and deeply divided.
During the first round of December 1991 parliamentary elections, the Islamic Salvation front (FIS, Front Islamique Du Salut), founded by Ali Belhadj and Abbasi al-Madani, won 188 of 231 seats. These results, which would have brought FIS to power, were cancelled by the Algerian army on January 1992 in a military coup, and the Islamic party was banned in 1992.
Before people use to protest violently in the streets, now demonstrations are very peaceful… and from the other hand, opposition parties starting discussions despite their ideological differences.
That move sparked a decade of civil war in Algeria; 200,000 Algerians are believed to have been killed. “The dark era in Algeria left a deep mark in society; this is why Algerians avoided the street, even when the Arab Spring started, to keep their country’s stability,” Dr Sofiane Sakhri, spokesman of the opposition Jil Jadid party (New Generation, in Arabic), told Al Jazeera.
“What we have to watch is that the opposition now is more mature than 20 years ago. Before people use to protest violently in the streets, now demonstrations are very peaceful… and from the other hand, opposition parties starting discussions despite their ideological differences,” Sakhri said.
Barakat members have recently held meetings with different opposition parties, but they insist that they are a civilian movement, and have no plans to join or merge with existing political party.
“There is… a lack of interest in partisan politics from the civil society, [and] a lack of a common agenda between different parties,” Amel Boubekeur, a non-resident fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP-Berlin) who specialises in Maghreb politics and European-Arab relations, told Al Jazeera.
“The opposition parties should extend their criticism beyond Bouteflika and set their sights on the whole system.”