Algeria: Elections without democracy

The election won’t deliver victory or defeat, but it will act as a barometer to gauge post-Bouteflika Algeria.

Many Algerians will likely abstain from voting in the country's parliamentary elections [Reuters]

Exeter, UK – The elections in Algeria neither test “democracy” nor the Arab Spring.

This round of parliamentary elections is no more than a measure of the oddity of politics after Algeria’s own aborted “Arab Spring” of the early 1990s and the subsequent civil war that raged for nearly a decade.

Thus they test only three things: the viability of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s post-civil war political order, the electorate’s fatigue from political banality since the conclusion of the civil war, and the sustainability of the Arab Spring’s Islamist trend.

In 1991 Algeria led the way, and its own spring stunned a lethargic and autocratic Arab Middle East. All of that was ended in early 1992 and Algeria’s spring has never since been allowed to flourish.

 Parliamentary elections under way in Algeria

Elections or no elections, all that unfolded since the coup that aborted Algeria’s democracy in January 1992 has been geared towards undoing the mistakes of the generals that executed the coup and the killing fields that followed it.

Algeria’s modern political history is defined by two colossal events: a stunning revolution, unique in the Third World and the Arab Middle East, which ousted the French colonials in 1962; and a military coup that ousted democracy in 1992.

The 2012 elections are devoid of any significance: They cannot restore revolutionary legitimacy, and they are unable to redeem democracy. They will be elections without democracy. The chief significance of Algeria’s elections for a new 462-member parliament is that they will be the last polls under the ailing 75-year-old Bouteflika.

Bouteflika, like the regime he presides over, looks more like an oddity after the departure from power of all the North African septuagenarians ousted in the Arab uprisings of 2011. And the regime, like its head, is tattered by old age – not to mention corruption, lethargy, and dwindling legitimacy.

Fifty years of independence from France has thus far entrenched a military bureaucracy and the attendant patronat (Mafiosi), which deftly slices the economic cake, reproducing itself through rent-seeking that nets the state close to $200bn.

Such high earnings relative to the impoverished Egyptians and Tunisians has not yielded good governance dividends or satisfactory human development. Figures documenting unemployment are unreliable: They may be double and in some regions treble the official figure of 11 per cent.

‘Bouteflika is the system’?

By May 11, there will be a mixed bag of outcomes. None will be a meaningful victory before 2014, when President Bouteflika is due to vacate the highest office in the land – if not before, given his poor health.

The three tests subsumed under today’s polls measure different things, which make the current elections not by any means a single electoral event. The three tests are defined by the political forces and the constituencies at the heart of Algeria’s polity.

This polity was reinvented by none other than the seasoned Bouteflika himself in order to keep a fragile social peace. This will remain Bouteflika’s main political feat as a president. He fit together broken pieces – narratives, ideologies, and actors – to reinvent a polity of sorts that keeps Algeria functional. Bouteflika’s reinvented polity is underpinned by the value of stability. As in other regimes ousted by the Arab Spring, democracy does not fare well even if electoral “performative acts” are staged periodically and with a good degree of organisation and mobilisation.

However, like in all segmented polities traumatised by violent conflict, breakage is so deep that not all shattered pieces can be collected and reintegrated.

Thus, Algeria today functions as a segmented country – the reintegrated Algeria functioning from the centre and the excluded lurking in the political periphery. This is the essence of the polity Bouteflika so deftly reinvented to suit a moment of loss in the career of a revolutionary state that veered from the path designed by the postcolonial founding fathers. The cost of that loss was 200,000 deaths in a senseless civil war, which has yet to be narrated honestly by state and society in Algeria.

Three electoral tests

Test 1: The elections are a trial run for the two rival political forces that make up Bouteflika’s three-legged stool of politics in Algeria: the delegitimised and reshaped National Liberation Front (FLN), inheritor of the postcolonial glorious revolution; and the National Democratic Rally (NDR), invented by Bouteflika to “pluralise” the state.

With privileged status in the reinvented polity, Bouteflika’s final stroke of genius came in the form of two heavyweights who mirrored the president’s own predilections for the kind of partners and protégés he sought. These were Ahmed Ouyahya, the NDR’s leader; and Abdelaziz Belkhadem, the FLN’s Secretary General.

Belkhadem, once a charismatic foreign minister, was given a taste of the prime ministership in 2006, replacing the ambitious Ouyahya, who held the post from 2003 to 2006 and from 2008 to present.

These are the two men that have been allowed to steer the ship of civilian government on behalf of Bouteflika. Although they are currently footnotes in the book of Algerian politics dominated by Bouteflika, they will open up their own chapters when the president leaves the scene.

Tenure brings misfortune too: Youth unemployment, corruption, and rising costs of living count more against Ouyahya than Belkhadem, who is also marked as an establishment politician. But both men’s parties will be blamed with the chronic problems of Algeria, never solved since the country’s 1988 bread riots.

However, for now, they are “yes, Mr President” figures. For them as individuals, more than the political shells they lead, the elections will measure their potential as presidential hopefuls in 2014.

The third leg? The hidden state: the generals and the security forces, who for a long time have been stakholders in the business side of the state, and who form part of the patronat system. This “hidden” or quasi-deep state (le pouvoir, in Algerian political parlance) is the shadow political force that restrains and restricts the actions and preferences of the formal visible centre.

Test 2: There is fatigue in the Algerian public. Earlier this year I was in Algeria, and one thing my interlocutors confirmed time and time again is that they have no stomach for “Arab Spring”-type protests or more violence. There is deference, disaffection and distrust of all politics – once dubbed boulitik” (the vocation of those who dupe the masses) by the great Algerian thinker Malik Bin Nabi.

This public is highly politicised, and led the way in rolling back Arab authoritarianism in the early 1990s: first through bread riots and then through the ballot. And when democracy atrophied, they turned to the bullet.

The way they will vote will mirror the overall state of segmentation in Algerian politics: the haves who rely on the state for livelihood and selective benefits, and those who have their backs against the wall (known as the hittistes in Algeria): the unemployed who ceased to be stakeholders in postcolonial Algeria.

Again, the formal/visible/central public and the informal/hidden/peripheral shadowing each other, gravitating towards two poles of politics in Algeria, will shape the current elections by the percentage of people who vote.

If less than 40 per cent vote, then Algeria will be poised after Bouteflika to re-launch its own Arab Spring. A silent majority in the Arab Middle East is not a passive entity. It will strike back when the right detonators, time, and place coincide.

Test 3: This is the most important test in the current elections: Will Algeria confirm the upward rise of the Islamists? If so, then Bouteflika may be given reason to condemn Ouyahya to the reserves, and manage politics, brilliantly as ever, by coopting.

The Green Coalition of six parties comprises heavyweights such as Algeria’s own Hamas, a Nahda Party, and an Islah group – a mosaic par excellence of established and newly-created parties. This coalition could steal not only the limelight but also, and more importantly, seats from the two rival establishment parties that have dominated Bouteflika’s state.

This trend is important not only to Algeria, but to the world. If this trend is confirmed in today’s elections, then the Arab Middle East and the entire Middle East region is indeed on its way to complete transformation. Secular politics will be confined to the margins after domination of the postcolonial order for nearly 60 years.

This could signal some coincidence with the Arab Spring, of which Algeria sowed some of its first seeds in the late 1980s. It would not be a bad coincidence. This is a reason why the current Islamists – being establishment actors – will be shadowed by the Islamists of the 1990s, who made their stamp on Algerian politics via the ballet and the bullet.

Many have reformed and reintegrated, but many more populate the swelling margins, where the silent majority is waiting behind the curtains to draw in Boutelfika’s Algeria before they have their final say.

The current elections will measure neither majority nor minority. Or will it reveal anything new under the Algerian sun of politics. It will not deliver victories or defeats. Rather, it will offer a barometer by which to gauge the flavour of politics in the Algeria of post-Bouteflika, and, perhaps, the Arab Middle East.


Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).