Electoral fraud and the abuse of authority allows President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to take up a controversial fourth mandate. As expected, Algeria’s head of state Abdelaziz Bouteflika won the presidential election on 17th April 2014 by a high margin. This is the fourth time he holds the country’s highest office. According to official figures he gained 81,5% of the votes ahead of his biggest rival Ali Benflis who received only 12,2%. The results are not surprising. Electoral outcomes in Algeria are usually fixed, with results negotiated behind closed doors, long before the polls have opened. However, the presidential elections in 2014 were controversial. Bouteflika is widely believed to suffer from severe health problems. With the polls set to open, opposition forces warned that the ballot might be manipulated. Both prior to, and during the elections several protests took place in the coastal area of Algeria. Several rallies in the capital Algiers were violently dispersed by security forces. The Kabylie province, located east of Algiers and mostly populated by Berbers of the Kabylie minority, have already witnessed numerous protests in advance of the elections. During the polls violent clashes between security forces and protesters took place around the city of Bouira in the same region. Local newspapers said around 70 were injured and dozens arrested by police forces (Rosa Luxemburg Foundation).
Most opposition parties have alleged ballot-tempering, and refused to recognize the official results while Bouteflika’s clan continues to assert its influence. In Europe and the United States no critical comments were heard about the electoral process or Bouteflika’s controversial presidential bid. Finally, Bouteflika’s clan, well-known as a reliable partner for his western allies, stays in power. Beside its role as the second biggest and most crucial crude oil and natural gas exporting country in Africa, Algeria is the most important partner for the West when it comes to international security policies in sub-Saharan Africa. Furthermore, with Bouteflika in power, Europe and the US assure the predictable management of their interests in the Maghreb region. Nevertheless, even more important than the presidential election itself is who will be Algeria’s next vice-president. This is the key question concerning the political stability of the country.
Sharp criticism of Bouteflika’s candidacy
Abdelaziz Bouteflika is the acting head of state since 1999. At the same time he is minister of defence and head of the National Liberation Front (FLN), which has remained in control of the country since Algeria’s independence from France in 1962. He is from the old generation of the former unity party FLN, whose political influence in the state apparatus remains unchallenged. His latest candidacy for the post of the head of state has caused strong criticism in the North African country after he spent three months in the French military hospital Val-de-Grâce in Paris to recover from a stroke he had in spring 2013. Today, it is suspected that he continues to suffer from severe health problems. His appearance in a polling station the early morning of the election day was his first public appearance in almost two years.
During the election campaign Bouteflika stayed invisible. Ahead of the election he appointed a team of six close confidants who represented him at the campaign, individuals charged with promoting his re-election in the country: Abdelmalek Sellal, the former Prime Minister who had to step down from his post after he was appointed by Bouteflika as the director of his election campaign, the FLN Secretary General Amar Saïdani, the two former Prime Ministers Ahmed Ouyahia (National Democratic Rally, RND) and Abdelaziz Belkhadem (FLN), the Minister of Industrial Development Amara Benyounès (Algerian Popular Movement, MPA) and Minister of Public Works and Transport Amar Ghoul, head of the Rally for Algeria’s Hope (TAJ). Beside the support of the FLN, RND, MPA and the TAJ, Algeria’s entrepreneurs‘ associations and the former unity trade union federation UGTA backed his re-election campaign.
Due to his ailing health, the opposition has voices strong doubts concerning Bouteflika’s ability to execute the duties of the presidential office. Furthermore, they have repeatedly criticized Algeria’s rigid power structure. 52 years after the country’s independence from France, Algeria is still politically dominated by the so called “Bouteflika Clan” originally based in Western Algeria. This clan is by far the most powerful faction within the FLN as well as in the state apparatus and has even expanded its influence since Bouteflika came into office. However, even from the ranks within the party the call for its modernization became louder, especially referring to the replacement of a select group of long serving figures in the party.
Pallid candidates, dreary election campaign
Despite opposition to his bid, Bouteflika ran again for Algeria’s presidency. It was clear from the beginning who would win the polls. None of his competitors had the backing of the powerful military or Algeria’s intelligence service. Although twelve candidates applied to take part in the elections, only six of them have been approved by the Constitutional Council. Moussa Touati, Ali Fawzi Rebaïne and Louisa Hanoune, head of the leftist Trotskyist Workers Party (PT), ran for the third time in presidential elections against Bouteflika. The only newcomer in the race was Abdelaziz Belaïd. All these four candidates were without any chance. Only Ali Benflis were given chances to achieve a respectable result. He led Bouteflika’s presidential campaign in 1999 and became Secretary General of the FLN and Algeria’s Prime Minister in Bouteflika’s first term. After their controversy Benflis ran against his former ally in the presidential election in 2004 and lost the contest considerably.
Bouteflika’s clan started its election campaign already in fall 2013 when Amar Ghoul announced a large-scale construction program for social housing. RND-chief Abdelkader Bensalah referred to Algeria’s political stability and highlighted Bouteflika’s “achievements”. Sellal promised that constitutional changes would create a “broad democracy” if Bouteflika would be re-elected. Remarkably, however, was that the recognition of the Berber language Amazigh became a dominant subject in the election campaigns. Almost all candidates adopted this demand. Ali Benflis promised the “Emancipation of Amazigh”. Months of unrest between Sunni Arabs and Mozabite Berbers in the southern Algerian city of Ghardaïa in the province of Mzab had apparently ensured that the recognition of cultural rights of minorities in the country became one of the most dominant issues in the election campaigns.As accusations of a possible electoral fraud were made by Rebaïne, Benflis and Touati, Bouteflika accused Benflis of destabilising the country and called his allegations a form of “terrorism”. Bouteflika’s competitors did not stop their criticism and accused his clan of abusing their control of state media to gain a political advantage for the Bouteflika campaign.
Clashes overshadowed the ballot
Already ahead of the elections, the country saw numerous protests and clashes in the Northern provinces. In Algeria’s Kabylie region, protesters interrupted several campaign events. Bouteflika’s campaign manager Sellal had to cancel a speech in Béjaïa, after protesters stormed the venue. Also Benflis‘ campaign was affected. Shortly before the elections, about 4000 people took to the streets in Tizi Ouzu, the biggest city the the Kabylie. They argued against Bouteflika’s presidential bid and called for an election boycott.3A day before the elections, a sit-in organised by the protest movement “Barakat” in Downtown Algiers was violently dispersed by police forces. Protests were ongoing during the elections. In Béjaïa and Bouira, anti-government protesters stormed polling stations. Ballot boxes were set on fire. Since 1991, protests and rallies are required to obtain an explicit permission from the authorities, while demonstrations in Algiers are generally banned based on a presidential decree issued by Bouteflika in 2001. In the context of increasing police brutality against protests in Algeria, the human rights organisation Amnesty International sharply attacked the human rights situation in the country only a few days ahead of the poll. The right of public demonstrations is severely restricted by Algerian authorities, the freedom of association denied for independent trade unions and freedom of expression curtailed, said Amnesty in a statement.
Some days after the vote, the city of Tizi Ouzu witnessed a terrorist attack on a military post. 14 soldiers were killed. The region had always been a target for terrorist groups that continued to perpetrate regular attacks in the country since the end of Algeria’s bloody civil war in the late 1990s.4However, for some years terrorist attacks were all but unheard in the North of Algeria. With the exception of the Kabylie and Algiers, the presidential elections took place in a quiet environment. On election night, Bouteflika supporters celebrated his victory in Algiers and Mascara in the North West while some Benflis supporters claimed the victory for themselves in the city of Tizi Ouzu. But, the official results were not a surprise. With 81,53% of the votes, Bouteflika was declared as the elected President. Benflis gained only 12,18%. Abdelaziz Belaïd won 3,36% ahead of Louisa Hanoune, who came in fourth with only 1,37%. Rebaïne scored 0,99 and Moussa Touati 0,56%. According to official figures, the turnout dropped significantly and reached only 50,70% compared with 74% in 2009.
Electoral fraud allegations louder
Immediately after the ballot, electoral fraud allegations intensified. Even before the announcement of the official figures, Benflis published a statement in which he accused Bouteflika’s clan of a “large-scale electoral fraud”. Benflis, Rebaïne and Touati do not recognize the results. Louisa Hanoune was the only candidate who recognized the final figures. She stated, the elections are a “great victory for the Algerian people” and called its results “legitimate and untouchable” compared to 2009 when she loudly opposed the official numbers.5Although, three weeks before the elections, the Algerian daily newspaper El Watan wrote “Fraud has already begun”. The paper expressed serious doubts about the allegedly collected four million signatures by Bouteflika, which were submitted to the Constitutional Council to fix Bouteflika’s registration as a candidate. All signatures were collected in only eight days, a logistical impossibility. Furthermore, El Watan reported that employees of state owned companies such as the airline Air Algerié or the Gas and Oil company Sonatrach as well as public servants were forced or bribed by Bouteflika allies to sign these forms and support Bouteflika. Moreover, the official figures about the turnout are not credible. Journalists on the ground reported about empty polling stations and expressed doubts concerning the reliability of the official numbers.
Islamist and secular opposition call for an election boycott
As the numerous protests around the elections indicated, the opposition still enjoys considerable throng. In March about 5000 people gathered in Algiers. They chanted against Bouteflika’s presidential bid and called for an election boycott. The Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), largely supported by Berbers and inhabitants of the Kabylie, and the moderate islamist Movement for the Society and Peace (MSP), called for the event. But, Algeria’s anti-government opposition is still strongly divided, the divisions between Islamists and secularists remain deep. The perception of all opposition parties being more or less co-opted by the regime, has diminished their credibility in the country, and likely explains why more Algerians have neither joined the opposition parties nor boycotted the recent election.
Like the PT, for many years, the RCD was an opposition force in the Parliament tolerated by the regime. With its sole presence in the chamber, the party lent legitimacy to the system. The RCD withdrew from the legislative body ahead of the parliamentary elections in 2012 and made the announcement that it intends to boycott the recent elections. The RCD and its biggest rival in the Kabylie, the Socialist Forces Front (FFS), have in fact switched their positions in dealing with the regime. While the RCD did not recognize the elections in 2012 and 2014, the FFS ran in both. This was the first time since the launch of the multi-party-system in the early 1990s that the FFS took part in elections. However, in the presidential elections in 2014, the stance of the FFS was ambivalent. Although, it described the elections as a “play” and indicated beforehand that the ballot might be manipulated, the party refused to join the boycott campaign.6Many people are still sceptical about the RCD because of these shifts, but the MSP grew even more unpopular as the party joined the government coalition with the FLN and the RND in 1997. This three-party-coalition ruled the country until 2012, when the Islamist party’s results dropped significantly in the parliamentary elections, prompting its subsequent departure from the government. Nevertheless, in 2014 for the first time since the early 1990s, no candidate from the Islamist current ran for presidency.
Due to popular disillusionment with many of the opposition parties, it is not surprising that “Barakat”, a non-partisan protest movement founded in 2013, stirred up the most attention amongst the Algerian people with its protest campaign. Some have already started comparing “Barakat” with Egypt’s influential Kefaya movement, which laid the groundwork for the Egyptian revolution in 2011. In contrast to that, Prof. Dr. Rachid Ouaissa, Professor for Political Science at Marburg University in Germany, emphasized that “Barakat’s” influence is largely limited to the urban areas in Northern Algeria. The sociologist Nasser Djabi explains that a movement like “Barakat” will only become dangerous for the regime when it is capable of extending its influence from the middle class in the urban North to the lower class in the rural areas. But for the moment, this is not the socio-political reality in Algeria.
The Independent trade unions also opposed Bouteflika’s bid for a fourth term. The president of the independent trade union federation for public servants (SNAPAP) Rachid Malaoui called the elections a “masquerade” and announced SNAPAP’s support for anti-government protests. Independent unions and syndicates are not well received by Algerian authorities. Strikes and labour protests were widely deemed illegal by the government and in some professions the creation of independent unions remains prohibited. In autumn 2013, Human Rights Watch (HRW) sharply criticized Algeria for its repressive policy towards independent trade unions, calling upon the government amend current laws, and cease its prosecutions of independent trade unions and their members across the country.
International support for Bouteflika’s campaign
The election observers from the African Union and the Arab League certified that the presidential election were held in line with international standards, while the European Union abstained from sending its own observers to the country. Instead, some Western top politicians travelled to Algeria shortly before the elections. All official visits were covered by Algerian state TV. Bouteflika’s ailing health was evident in his appearance in state TV, but the symbolic gesture behind this was simple: despite his health problems, this candidate is able to rule the country. Beside U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the Spanish Foreign Minister Manuel García-Margallo met with Algeria’s head of state in mid-April. García-Margallo made no secrets of his ambitions to extend natural gas imports from Algeria to Europe in the near future. The Spanish government described the country as a “reliable partner” and irreplaceable for the stability that it provides in this strategically important region. The Spanish government described that Algeria’s presidential elections as “transparent and pluralistic”.
After Russia and Norway, Algeria is Europe’s third biggest supplier of oil and gas. Amid the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, its natural gas reserves have become even more important for Europa. Algeria’s international partners are even more interested in the stability of the country, in light of the increased political instability in the region in the wake of the Arab Spring is a heavy burden for the economic interests of the industrialized countries.7Western arms manufacturers have found a lucrative stake in the region, especially in Algeria. But European and U.S. based consumer goods companies, attracted by the lower wage level and largely higher profits in Third world countries, have come under pressure as they see their profits diminishing as a result of interruptions in production caused by the ongoing political unrest in North Africa. With Bouteflika’s clan in power, Western countries have the assurance that their economy and security interests in North Africa will remain stable. Washington and Brussels are largely satisfied with the election results. Although the economic outlook remains dire for many, and widespread social inequalities remain, at this stage, Algeria’s new protest movement “Barakat” has not yet become a catalyst for political reforms. The military regime in Algiers maintains its position as a bastion for European economic and security interests.
The Bouteflika System – Who will be the new vice-president?
Bouteflikas “National reconciliation”, initiated at the end of the bloody civil war in the late 90s with its about 150000 people killed, was flanked by a massive increase of state revenues from Algeria’s oil and gas exports. The country is the second biggest oil and gas exporting country in Africa and due to the high world market price level for crude oil and natural gas, its government controls a vast revenue stream. This income is used for an extensive import of food and consumer goods or disappears in the widespread corruption canals of the state and security apparatus. The government has so far failed in its attempts to create jobs, and Algeria is largely dependent on imported commercial goods. Despite its considerable financial resources, Algeria suffers from a high unemployment rate and a housing shortage. The government has so far proven itself incapable of implementing an adequate economic and social welfare policy, that can appropriately distribute the country’s wealth. High subsidies on food and consumer goods are the primary means of alleviating the problems caused by Algeria’s ongoing struggle with unemployment and corruption.
It is likely that the ongoing social inequality will lead to political unrest. According to observers, the question is not so much if, but when a new uprising will start. The established opposition parties are discredited and the regime has successfully created a vacuum of power. The regime has so far co-opted all political forces by sharing a part of the oil revenues with them. Furthermore, Algiers has used this income to promote a trade oriented middle class, but the industry remains weak and the unemployment rate high. By granting interest-free loans, the regime has created about 600000 jobs in the past few years. But the result of this strategy has been to create hundreds of thousands young entrepreneurs, who are now indebted to the state.
Beside Bouteflika, there are few faces that can be assigned to blame for Algeria’s crisis. The country is ruled by a so called “deep state”. “Algeria’s regime is a state class, a cartel acting behind closed doors, whose various rival factions agree on informal arrangements for power-sharing. Apparently, the most important groups within the apparatus – the military, the intelligence service DRS (Département du renseignement et de la sécurité) and Bouteflika’s FLN – could not agree on a successor. Bouteflika was forced to run again”, said Ouaissa. Bouteflika ran for presidency in 1999 as the declared “consensus candidate” who was able to balance the rivalries between the different faction within the FLN as well as in the military and intelligence apparatus. Nevertheless, in his third term open power struggles broke out, both within the FLN, and between Bouteflika’s clan and the DRS. Despite heavy resistance from inside the FLN, in 2013 Bouteflika appointed Saïdani as the FLN Secretary General. In a cabinet reshuffle in September 2013, Bouteflika nominated close allies for key posts in the government. Tayeb Belaiz was appointed as Minister of Interior and Tayeb Louh as Minister of Justice. Furthermore, Bouteflika’s former Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci was appointed as head of the Constitutional Council. With these posts under his control, Bouteflika was well prepared for his re-election. Meanwhile, Saïdani started a public row with the powerful DRS chief Mohamed Mediène, who systematically targeted Bouteflika confidants with corruption scandals in recent years to weaken Bouteflika’s position inside the ruling cartel.
These affairs have not changed anything. On the contrary. Algeria’s regime may be fragmented, but the factions in power have a basic interest in keeping the effective power structure hidden. Ouaissa calls the verbal fight between the DRS and the FLN a “staged play”. As long as the profiteers of the “Bouteflika System” control the income from the oil and gas exports and are able to divide it among themselves, the ruling class has no interest in open rivalry. In the meantime, the regime pumps money in form of loans and subsidies to the wider society to manage public discontent. However, Bouteflika has lost his power. “The new key post in Algeria will be the vice-presidents office, who’s holder can directly move to Bouteflika’s chair after his death. The decision who will take that office, is more important than the presidential election itself. With this mechanism, the regime makes sure to solve the problem of finding a successor for Bouteflika’s in an elegant way and without internal trouble”, Ouaissa believes. Favourites for the post are Ahmed Ouyahia and Bouteflika’s younger brother Said, who is a well-known figure in Algeria and influential inside the cartel.
© Sofian Philip Naceur 2014