An Algerian Presidential Free-for-All

by Youcef Bouandel | published April 6, 2004

The Algerian presidential elections coming up on April 8 have captured the imagination of the electorate like never before—because, at least in theory, one cannot predict the winner. In previous elections, the results were known long before polling day, and Algerian voters, in effect, only rubber-stamped decisions made behind the scenes by the powerful army. But in 2004, le pouvoir—as Algerians refer to the military establishment—has made it clear that it neither supports nor opposes any of the six major candidates. Unlike two previous presidential contests with multiple candidates, in 1995 and 1999, this year's election looks like a free-for-all. If no candidate wins an outright majority in the April 8 balloting, there will be a runoff between the two top vote-getters on April 22. Such a scenario appears likely. Should President Abdelaziz Bouteflika fail to secure a second term in office, the election will have produced a chief executive who does not have to invoke participation in the 1954-1962 war of independence to claim legitimacy with the Algerian public. None of his opponents is from that aging generation.

Notwithstanding those forces who have called for boycotting or postponing the election, the political space has been divided between two poles. Bouteflika and his entourage have spared no effort, including use of the state's resources, to ensure that he remains in charge for another five years. Meanwhile, a vocal opposition is determined to ensure the president's defeat. This opposition includes his former prime minister and closest ally, Ali Benflis, and influential figures like the retired general and former minister of defense, Khaled Nezzar.

Benefits of Exile

Bouteflika occupies a controversial place in the political history of post-colonial Algeria. After independence in 1962, he served as minister of youth and sports, and then, a year later, became the youngest foreign minister in the world. Under his stewardship, and particularly after Houari Boumedienne's coup d'etat in June 1965, Algerian diplomacy reached its peak. According to former US diplomat Stanley Meisler, in 1970 Algeria was "the most influential country in the United Nations." Bouteflika was tipped to succeed Boumedienne upon his death, but the military intervened to appoint Col. Chadli Bendjedid as head of state in February 1979. Then Bouteflika was excluded from the National Liberation Front (FLN, according to the French acronym), Algeria's ruling party, on accusations of embezzlement, whereupon he opted for "self-imposed exile."

Because he left the country, the president's name is not associated with "the black decade" of the Bendjedid regime, nor with the abrupt halt to the country's "democratization" process in January 1992, when the army nullified the results of the first round of legislative elections that would have given a majority to the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS, according to the French acronym), and preemptively canceled the second round. Coupled with the banning of the FIS a month later, this decision pushed the Islamists, furious at the "confiscation of the people's choice," to take up arms. The authorities responded with heavy-handed tactics, and the violence that has afflicted Algeria for the last decade claimed an estimated 150,000 lives, mostly those of civilians.

If January 1992 is one important date for understanding the political background of the upcoming election, the other is October 1988. That month, violent demonstrations and regime massacres of civilians showed the depth of popular discontent with the corrupt and politically bankrupt regime. The ensuing reforms included the introduction of a multi-party system, ending almost three decades of formal FLN monopoly in politics, and independent Algeria's first-ever pluralistic elections at the local and regional levels. During the height of the civil war in the 1990s, this formal democratization process continued. Under Liamine Zeroual, a retired general appointed president in 1994, Algeria held its inaugural pluralistic presidential election in November 1995. Armed with this degree of popular legitimacy, Zeroual proceeded to the adoption of a new constitution in 1996 and additional legislative and local elections in 1997. Then, in 1998, Zeroual stunned the nation by cutting short his own mandate, which would have run until 2000. During the 1999 presidential campaign, Bouteflika ran as the man best equipped to end the civil war and restore Algeria's tarnished image.

According to detractors, Bouteflika was installed by the military in 1999, rather than elected. The election was indeed dubious: several candidates dropped out before the polling, citing their suspicions of a preordained result. The president's opponents say he owes even his proudest moment—his presidency of the UN General Assembly in 1974—solely to Boumedienne and Algeria's general reputation. Almost since he assumed office in 1999, Bouteflika has been the object of unprecedented domestic criticism, chiefly for what is seen as clumsy management of the Kabylia crisis in April-May 2001 and the Law on Civil Harmony that led to pardons for Islamist "terrorists." His critics among powerful insiders range from Cherif Belkacem, a fellow member of the FLN Council of Revolution under Boumedienne, to Benflis and Nezzar. The latter, architect of the "palace coup" in January 1992, recently published a damning assessment of Bouteflika's tenure. Mohammed Benchicou, director of the daily newspaper Le Matin, has also published a book in which he "unmasked the legend" of Bouteflika. Police attempts to prevent sales of the book served only to publicize it further.

Backdrop of Mistrust

Following the Law on Civil Harmony in July 1999 and the amnesty for FIS activists in January 2000, the violence sparked in 1992 has decreased, but it has not disappeared. Despite Bouteflika's boasts to the contrary, many parts of the country remain unstable and the Algerian press carries regular reports of assassinations and attacks on property. The 2004 election will be held not only as the state of emergency persists, but against a backdrop of broader mistrust in state institutions.

Since April 2001, the Berber regions of the country, or Kabylia, have been gripped by a mood of total defiance of government policies. In that month, the death of a Berber youth in police custody set off a series of protests, culminating in a march of nearly a million people on Algiers on June 14. While authorities in Algiers have silenced their other critics, mainly through repression, they have failed to deflect the cultural, economic and social demands coming from the Kabyles. When repressive measures did not work, the regime embarked on a campaign to discredit the movement representing the popular discontent, insinuating that Kabyle demands are manipulated by foreign forces and constitute a threat to national unity. In response, Kabyle activists insist on the national character of both their movement and the injustices that it decries: shortages of water and housing, high unemployment and what Algerians call hogra, the contempt of officials for the citizenry they are supposed to serve. Kabyle unrest is ongoing. When Bouteflika paid a campaign visit the Berber town of Tizi Ouzou on April 2, riot police were summoned to quell the demonstrations.

Bouteflika's Bandwagon

Part of the reason for persistent popular mistrust in the system is that, during the bloody civil war, several of Algeria's political parties ceased to act as regime watchdogs and instead were reduced to the task of opposing the Islamist opposition. Secular parties, such as the former Communist Party, engaged in open conflict with the Islamists. Meanwhile, to block the growth of party competition and coalition, the regime declined to officially recognize parties that might oppose it, such as the Wafa movement of former Foreign Minister Ahmed Taleb Ibrahim and the Democratic Front of former Prime Minister Sid Ahmed Ghozali. Other parties that support the regime, such as the newly created Republican Democratic Union (UDR) led by Amara Benyouness, were quickly recognized.

Even before Bouteflika announced, in February 2004, that he would run for a second term, a number of political parties had already pledged their support. This "coalition for the presidential election" represents the four main currents in Algerian politics—"nationalists," "democrats," Islamists and Berberists. The so-called nationalist current is represented by the "correctional movement of the FLN," headed by Foreign Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem, which emerged after the party's secretary-general, Ali Benflis, asserted the independence of the party from the regime. Bouteflika and his entourage encouraged Belkhadem's manufactured division of the FLN in an attempt to weaken the leadership of Benflis. The so-called democratic current is represented by the National Democratic Party (RND) led by current Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia. The Movement for Society and Peace (MPS) seeks to secure the Islamist vote. Like the RND, the MPS actively supported Bouteflika in 1999, after the disqualification of its former leader, Mahfoud Nahnah, from the presidential race. Finally, the UDR also jumped with alacrity onto Bouteflika's bandwagon. Most of its founding fathers had been members of the mainly Berberist Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD). Among other tasks, Benyouness was charged with preparing the ground in the Kabyle districts of Bejaia and Tizi Ouzou for the president's campaign visits. Bouteflika's rough welcome there in the first days of April attests to the unpopularity of this move.

Party or State Organ?

The most important party in Algeria remains the FLN. Intended to be a nationalist movement comprising different political tendencies, the FLN was formed in 1954 to lead the armed struggle against the French occupation. Soon after independence in 1962, there were calls for the FLN to be dissolved. However, the new authorities in Algiers banked on their "historical legitimacy" as the victors over French colonialism to outlaw the parties that were created after independence, such as Hocine Ait Ahmed's Socialist Forces Front and Mohamed Boudiaf's Socialist Revolutionary Party. Algeria's rulers claimed this mantle of revolutionary legitimacy in a de facto one-party system for almost three decades. Despite the emergence of a plethora of parties in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the FLN remained closely associated with the regime until the cataclysm of January 1992.

Under the leadership of Abdelhamid Mehri, after the army's suspension of the electoral process, the FLN assumed the role of an opposition party. Despite having been completely humiliated itself in the first round of the legislative elections in December 1991, the party did not support canceling the results. The FLN also stayed out of the regime's puppet parliament. In late 1994, the FLN, along with other parties and national personalities, was instrumental in organizing meetings at the Community of Sant'Egidio in Rome. These meetings concluded with the signing, in January 1995, of a "Platform for a Political and Peaceful Solution of the Algerian Crisis." The FLN (and the FIS) signed the Platform, which rejected violence as a means of achieving power, denounced dictatorship, consecrated the multi-party system and called for an end to army interference in politics. Later that year, the FLN boycotted the presidential elections called by Zeroual.

With such opposition credentials, the FLN, especially its leadership, became a source of embarrassment to the authorities in Algiers. The regime moved to bring the party back into line. During the FLN Central Committee meeting in Algiers in January 1996, regime supporters orchestrated the replacement of Mehri as secretary-general. The change in leadership drew the party back into the clutches of le pouvoir. The losing candidate in the race to replace Mehri, Mouloud Hamrouche, was prevented from attending the March 1998 party congress, despite being automatically qualified as delegate by virtue of his membership in the central committee. When Zeroual cut short his own mandate that September, the FLN Central Committee announced that it would support Bouteflika, who was backed by the army though he had not yet declared himself a candidate. By failing to assemble a party congress for this endorsement, the leadership violated party statutes.

Bouteflika vs. Benflis

Benflis was in charge of Bouteflika's 1999 electoral campaign; following the election, he was soon appointed prime minister. In September 2001, at an extraordinary Congress of the FLN, allegedly with the support of Bouteflika, Benflis was elected secretary-general. Bouteflika calculated that with Benflis, a personal friend and a close ally, leading the FLN, he would benefit from the support of the party in his quest for a second mandate. Benflis, however, had other plans. He embarked on an ambitious program to reinstate the FLN as the leading force in Algerian politics. The Party began a relentless drive to recruit new blood, with the younger generation, the educated and women topping its priorities. The parliamentary election of May 2002, in which the FLN won 199 seats out of a possible 389, confirmed the front's position as the majority party in the National Assembly.

In March 2003, at the eighth Congress of the FLN, Benflis's grip on the party was clearly visible. In accordance with party statutes, Benflis was confirmed as secretary-general and delegates gave him wide-ranging powers. In a speech to mark the closure of the Congress, Benflis reiterated that the party would be independent from regime tutelage. This declaration dealt a serious blow to Bouteflika's chances of a second term, and put the two men at loggerheads. Their dispute, previously hidden from public view, reached a boiling point on May 5, when the president dismissed Benflis from his post as prime minister. Consequently, opponents of Benflis resorted to violence to intimidate his supporters, and throughout the summer of 2003, the Algerian press reported attacks on party offices in the four corners of the country. In the eyes of those loyal to Bouteflika, the FLN had strayed from its original path. Belkhadem named his band of dissenters "the correctional movement" to create the impression that something is wrong in the party. It is he, says the foreign minister, who is acting in the best interests of the nation.

Benflis interpreted this move as an attempt by the presidential clique to hijack the party machinery, and the "correctional movement" only stiffened his supporters' resolve to carry on. At the end of September 2003, Benflis called an extraordinary party meeting to announce his own candidacy for president. Alarmed at this turn of events, the "correctional movement" went to court to seek an injunction against convening the Congress. Eventually, in December 2003, a court invalidated the Eighth Congress of the FLN that had confirmed Benflis as leader and froze party assets. But Benflis had already had the last word. He convened the extraordinary meeting on October 3. The following day, six ministers loyal to him withdrew from Bouteflika's coalition government. The ingredients for an exciting election season were in place. As always in Algerian politics, however, the biggest question remained: what would the military do?

Long Years of Meddling

Since independence, the Algerian military has exercised great power behind the scenes, openly intervening in politics on several occasions. All seven post-independence presidents have either come from a military background or enjoyed the full support of the army. High-ranking officers have been members of both the FLN's Politburo and its Central Committee.

Following the reforms introduced in late 1988 and especially the 1989 constitution, the military was officially reassigned to its classical professional role of defending the country. As a symbolic gesture of their supposed disengagement from politics, military officers resigned their positions in the FLN. The military, nonetheless, followed the course of Bendjedid's reforms very carefully. The appointment of Gen. Khaled Nezzar to the post of minister of defense—a post which had been occupied by the president since 1965—suggested that the military's disengagement from politics was only formal. During the agony of the 1990s, prompted by its intervention to cancel the 1992 elections, le pouvoir imported a succession of figures—Mohammed Boudiaf, Ali Kafi, Liamine Zeroual and, finally, Bouteflika—to mind the store on its behalf.

Why would the army suddenly terminate its 40 long years of meddling in Algerian public affairs? Recent declarations of military strongman Gen. Mohammed Lamari that the army will not favor any candidate and that it will respect the choice of the Algerian people—even the Islamist, Abdallah Djeballah—may seem surprising. Yet the military itself has taken steps to ensure that the impending electoral contest will be free. Special polling stations in military barracks—where officers might intimidate lower ranks into voting a certain way—have been abolished. Top brass has sent strict instructions to mid-level commanders to observe neutrality or face severe penalties. Presidential candidates have applauded this policy, and at least a sizable percentage of the population appears to believe it is genuine.

Apparently, after over a decade of civil strife, the military has finally decided that it will step back and watch a clean election. But if the record of the last five years is any barometer, then the military's decision to empower Bouteflika in 1999 must be counted as a real failure. Perhaps the army is dissatisfied with Bouteflika's lack of achievements, or his lukewarm defense of Algeria's poor human rights record. While the army's neutrality is a significant step in the painful transition away from authoritarian rule in Algeria, it is not purely neutral—in the sense that it enhances the chances of Bouteflika's rivals. In any event, the presidential free-for-all of 2004 still holds out the hope of establishing the principle in Algeria that changes of leadership occur peacefully and only through the ballot box.

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