Political Reform in Algeria is a Marathon, Not a Sprint: An Analysis of Algeria’s Upcoming Presidential Election

Algeria is preparing for presidential elections on 12 December in a context of acute political crisis. The nature of the anti-government protest movement suggests the crisis can only be resolved through long-term change.

JIA Editorial Board
December 11, 2019

Since receiving independence from and ending its bloody liberation from France in 1962, Algerian leadership has sought to impose, rather than develop through democratic participation, an identity and political direction on its people. The euphoric and novel atmosphere at the time permitted this fierce insistence on a unified Algerian identity, as did the tendency of the party that had led the negotiations for independence, the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), toward factionalism. Key elements of this identity included an Arab – to the exclusion of Berber (Amazigh) and other minorities —nationality, and an economic development plan and international relations strategy that relied on self-sufficiency and non-alignment with foreign powers.

Over the next five-plus decades, internal struggles among civilian and army leadership continued, as did policies of reliance on hydrocarbons to sustain generous state subsidies that postponed demands for democratic reform. Given its central role in the liberation struggle, the national army remained heavily influential in civilian leadership and its decisions. It also led, along with state police, the violent campaign against (also violent) Islamist opposition elements that began in the early 1990s and took hundreds of thousands of lives.

Thus, last February it appeared to many that the popular protests against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s candidacy for a fifth term in planned April elections represented an attempt to reclaim the people’s voice in Algeria’s governance. Opposition to Bouteflika’s candidacy stemmed not only from its violation of term limits (which had been introduced in 2016 in a series of constitutional reforms, after amendments in 2009 allowed Bouteflika to serve a third and fourth term), but also from the failure of the supposedly-elected leader to lead. At the start of his 82nd year, Bouteflika had suffered strokes and made only rare public appearances, failing to deposit his dossier for candidacy in person as required by the constitution, and often represented at public events by a framed portrait.

The people’s rejection of a fifth term for the president soon morphed into demands for an end to “the system” -- the clientelist network of businessmen, politicians, and military officials thought to be behind national decision-making. Algerians were demanding an end to the corruption and opacity among the leadership that not only came at their own expense but also posed an affront to their dignity. 

The street protests were so impressive that by 2 April Bouteflika had resigned, after Army General Ahmed Gaid Salah called for the application of the constitutional article deeming Bouteflika unfit to rule. According to the constitution, the presidency then passed to the speaker of the upper house of parliament, Abdelkader Bensalah, for an interim period of up to 90 days. However, by early June it was clear that the elections, which had originally been planned for mid-April, would be postponed again – not a single candidate who had registered by the deadline had been approved.

In September, General Salah confirmed that elections would take place on 12 December. Unlike in July, this time the elections are moving forward, despite dialogue initiatives by both civil society and the regime and continued demands on the street for a transition led by individuals not associated with “the system.” The five registered candidates, who last week debated their electoral platforms, all have ties to the contested regime – two are former prime ministers and three lead pro-regime parties. Although pro-government rallies, organized by the main labor union, were staged last weekend, the opposition movement continues to turn out in much larger numbers each Friday and Tuesday.

Despite protestors’ insistence that their movement is peaceful, regime repression has increased. High profile opposition leaders, journalistsartists, and other activists have been detained. Dozens more have been arrested for protesting with Amazigh flags, following Salah’s ban in June against flags other than the national Algerian flag. Indeed, Salah frequently invokes a foreign plot when he speaks, presumably to re-assert the military’s role in “protecting” and to discourage the population from  disrupting, instead insisting that it remain, as always, subordinate.

General Salah and those working with him appear therefore to be pushing ahead with elections more forcefully than in July. Perhaps their strategy is not as much to satisfy protestors as to wear them down. Yet the electoral process until now shows no sign of quelling the protest movement. Campaigns events have been systematically marred by low attendance or shut down as protestors have heckled candidates and thrown eggs and tomatoes at their headquarters.

How, then, might these elections – assuming they go forward – affect this standoff between the Algerian citizens and the government? As witnessed recently in other countries in the region, including Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Sudan, Iraq, and Lebanon, ousting a leader through popular protests does not always lead to immediate democratic change. Nor, of course, does the election or appointment of new leadership – Bouteflika himself ascended to the presidency amid hopes that he could bring peace following Algeria’s civil war. Moreover, replacing the country’s aging leadership will not alone fix the economic and social problems that have been building up for decades. Regardless of the elections and their outcome, therefore, one should not necessarily expect these elections to be a decisive event.

The Algerian people’s continued expression of a desire to reclaim their dignity and role in their future (as illustrated by, for instance, the self-organized street-cleaning following protests) will matter more than the result of this election. A likely outcome of the regime’s insistence on elections is that dismal turnout and continued large-scale opposition discredit the regime still further, providing momentum to protestors as uncertainty continues to loom.

How the international community chooses to treat these elections will also matter. Algeria’s historical hostility to foreign interference has manifested itself most recently in reactions to a statement by the European Parliament condemning human rights abuses in the county. People across the region, including those in Algeria, are wary of Western hypocrisy and forever suspicious of their former colonizers; meanwhile China and Russia have begun deepening commercial and security ties in the country. At the same time, a recent amendment to the hydrocarbons law encouraging foreign investment and enhancing cooperation (including with the United States) around security initiatives in the Sahel reflects the regime’s recognition that it cannot continue with its isolationist policies.

As one analyst put it, the protestors see achieving their goals as a “marathon, not a sprint.” This is illustrated in the protest movement’s many symbols of and historical connections to the people’s experiences since independence – including numerous small-scale protests and manifestations over issues such as housing and employment, claims to oil revenue, and demands for justice by the families of those “disappeared” during the civil war. The international community and the Algerian regime can therefore both expect that until decision-making is truly reflective of the Algerian people’s voice, the crisis will continue.

Sabina Henneberg is a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.