Elections in Algeria: a facade to maintain the status quo?

    Removing military control over Algeria’s politics is a lengthy process that will not be ended by protests or elections.

    On September 15th, Algeria’s interim president, Abdelkader Bensalah, announced that a third attempt at holding elections, after the cancelled attempts in April and July, would take place on December 12th. The socio-political state in Algeria over the last 8 months has made the elections a non-starter for the public, given the deep distrust of the political system -that the ballot box has historically perpetuated. The military, headed by Ahmed Gaid Salah, sees an election as the only acceptable exit from the political impasse.

    Both sides (the people and the establishment or military) see the constitution as the ultimate arbiter, but differ in their interpretations of it. The former believe elections cannot be held so long as remnants of the old regime are active and the people are not given the sovereignty afforded to them by the constitution to choose their next leader. The establishment believe all solutions must be derived from the constitution, in order to preserve the state’s institutions and security, which many view as a smokescreen for the military to maintain its position of imposing political leaders who represent their interests.

    Heavyweights like former ministers who did not find favour in the system, Ahmed Benbitour, Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi and Mouloud Hamrouche—as well as activists in the popular movement, known as the Hirak such as lawyer Mostapha Bouchachi—have all refused to participate. Instead they have formed yet another initiative, which favours a transition period that will create the right conditions for elections to take place, which will unfortunately end up being another failed attempt to initiate dialogue with a military that is adamant in viewing alternatives as ‘threats’ to the country’s future.

    For those prioritising self-interest – the current conditions are proving to be a gold mine for opportunism. Despite calling for the departure of the unpopular prime minister Noureddine Bedoui, former prime minister Ali Benflis—who has attempted, and failed, to bag the presidency twice against Bouteflika—is hoping to succeed in 2019. However given how civilians cannot attain the highest position in the country without the military’s backing, it is unlikely Benflis, who needs the military more than it needs him, will see his best chance to date end with any success.

    Former prime minister Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who was sacked after barely three months in for attempting to separate money from the state is seen as Benflis’ obstacle for the presidency. Relying on a legitimacy buoyed by his perceived victimhood under Bouteflika’s presidency and his backing of the popular movement (despite coming out in support of Bouteflika’s fifth term in January this year), his chances of capturing public trust are slim. Given his proximity to Gaid Salah, the military may seem like they have their personal pick from the 120 plus potentials who have submitted their candidacies. However given the opacity of the institution and the growing disposability of Gaid Salah, predictions fall short.

    Instead of focusing on the relevance of two figures from the Bouteflika era, what is more likely to happen is the military backing a relatively unknown “clean” candidate with no obvious links to the previous regime, who will honour the unwritten agreement of ruling as the civilian mask of the military’s power. The creation of a National Independent Electoral Authority, headed by former justice minister Mohamed Chorfi, and amendments to the electoral law to ensure elections are free and fair, serve more as a facade to buy time and continuity.

    Mayors and lawyers across the country have refused to officiate the electoral process knowing it is against the wishes of the vast majority of Algerians who recognise that the current political state of the country is not conducive to the holding of democratic elections. Even if elections were transparent and fair, the successful candidate would be denied the agency to run the country freely, a reality confirmed by former prime minister Mouloud Hamrouche earlier this month.

    As a former insider of the system, his warning bolsters the general view that a mass boycott of elections, which have always been fraudulent, remains the only legitimate position for the people. Given the country’s history, maneuvering the playing field is vital to ensure victories are not perceived as “stolen”. The consequences of holding democratic elections in Algeria can be costly. The last time it was attempted, the military stepped in anticipating the “wrong” results (which would see the Islamic Salvation Front bag a majority) and subsequently provoked a bloody 10-year war.

    Should elections be cancelled for a third time this year, things are likely to regress badly for the Hirak despite the view it would be a partial victory. As per Gaid Salah’s commands, greater repressive measures have been adopted by security forces to quell the protest movement. Dozens have been incarcerated in the crackdown including activists, students, journalists and former national heroes for carrying the ‘wrong’ flag or those accused of undermining the military.

    Concerns now centre around how far the military will go to ensure the results of elections, should they happen, are accepted. The initial apprehension over the last eight months to not repeat the violence of the Black October Riots in 1988, the civil war in the 90s, or the predicament of the countries who underwent the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ is wearing thin. If elections are boycotted and then subsequently cancelled with no candidate imposed, then a state of emergency will appear. This will prove disastrous for the Hirak with the introduction of unprecedented emergency measures likely to spell the beginning of the end of the peaceful mobilisation and a military show of might.

    Focus is now being turned to international actors to exert more diplomatic pressure and to condemn the increasing repression and arbitrary arrests. But with significant alternatives to the elections lacking and opposition to a transition period, options are scarce.

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