Upcoming Elections in Algeria Are Widely Rejected but What Other Options Do Protesters Have?

Published November 28th, 2019 - 06:28 GMT
Algerians protest against upcoming elections that they view as a sham. / AFP
Algerians protest against upcoming elections that they view as a sham. / AFP

By Greg Brinkworth

To anyone following recent events in Algeria, another headline noting the continuation of civil unrest might risk passing unnoticed. Large-scale, anti-government protests have rocked the nation’s cities with rhythmic regularity for the last nine months.

This November was no exception, with tens of thousands of Algerians rallying in the streets of the capital to demand the cancellation of December’s scheduled presidential election.

Emerging in February, the Hirak movement initially assembled to demand the resignation of long-term president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, as fresh allegations of government corruption stirred simmering discontent with his 19-year rule.

Since his resignation in April, the protests have expanded in size and ambition, calling for systemic change to eradicate corruption, and to dismantle the grip of the military on the nation’s judicial and democratic mechanisms.

In Bouteflika’s place, an interim patchwork of political and military figures governs, but after protesters successfully forced the regime to postpone elections initially arranged for July, the nation has been propelled towards a full-blown constitutional crisis.

The protests have expanded in size and ambition, calling for systemic change to eradicate corruption, and to dismantle the grip of the military on the nation’s judicial and democratic mechanisms.

The interim regime, under de facto leader Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaid Salah, maintains that fresh presidential elections are the only solution that can offer a way out of the nation’s growing social, economic, and political paralysis. However, protesters comprehensively reject this idea on the basis that their key demands have not yet been addressed – the grossly unpopular Prime Minister, Noureddine Bedoui, remains in power along with a cabinet composed almost entirely of Bouteflika loyalists. 

All but one of the five candidates vying for the presidency all held senior ministerial positions in the old administration, and all have faced widespread antipathy at campaign rallies amid calls for a nationwide boycott if the election goes ahead.

Protesters see elections under these circumstances as a poisoned chalice, a concession to a repressive regime that risks throwing away the momentum of the last 40 weeks and in so doing, missing a near-unprecedented opportunity for change. 

All but one of the five candidates vying for the presidency all held senior ministerial positions in the old administration, and all have faced widespread antipathy at campaign rallies.

So if not elections, what does the Hirak want instead?

A transitional period is a central demand – protesters across the country have called for the creation of a constitutional assembly to establish the separation of political and judicial powers. The lack of an independent judiciary has consistently crippled anti-corruption efforts in Algeria, making this a vital prerequisite in establishing civilian rule as the basis of society.

Salah and the establishment know that their calls for a 'constitutional solution' to the current deadlock have set them on a collision course with popular opinion.

In response, they insist that the interim government has inaugurated this desired transition, arresting corrupt business figures and even pledging an independent commission to oversee the presidential vote, which was previously under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of the Interior- a process that invariably took place behind closed doors. 

But in reality, these actions fool no-one. Alongside these more conciliatory efforts, Salah has increasingly drawn from the playbook of military dictators, seeking to divide the movement by stoking Arab-Berber animosities, imprisoning political opponents, and violently suppressing the protests, which remain overwhelmingly peaceful.

Further repression coupled with a lack of progress towards protesters’ demands is a dangerous combination as the country shuttles towards the latest expiry date for a solution.

Indeed, it is quite remarkable that the weekly protests have remained as forceful as they have without violent escalation, but the key ingredients are there. Further repression coupled with a lack of progress towards protesters’ demands is a dangerous combination as the country shuttles towards the latest expiry date for a solution.

Perhaps the most significant consequence of Bouteflika’s resignation has been to draw the real power-breakers in Algerian politics out from the shadows.

The interim government is a thin veil for ‘le pouvoir’ or the power – an unelected caucus of predominantly military figures who have either sanctioned or directly chosen every Algerian president since independence in 1962.

The army itself predates independence, and has long viewed itself as the ultimate defender of Algerian sovereignty. For nearly sixty years the military command has rested comfortably at the apex of political life, suggesting that it is complacency, not determination, that lies behind their failure to take more serious steps to ease the protests sooner.

Former PM Ali Benflis, one of five Algerian presidential candidates that protesters reject for ties to the political establishment. / AFP 

By contrast, the continued potency of the protests is owed to what at first appears a weakness- the absence of a clear chain of command.

The lack of clear leadership directing the protests has frequently been identified as a factor contributing to the slow grind towards stalemate, with no prominent civilians emerging to negotiate with the government. But if anything, this largely-unstructured formation is itself a product of Algeria’s systemic culture of corruption.

Corruption is the issue that everything ultimately leads back to. It was corruption allegations against the Bouteflika ‘clan’ of supporters that triggered the protest movement in February. At the same time the political establishment argues that its recent anti-bribery push upholds its legitimacy.

Anti-corruption efforts in Algeria are historically ineffective, and there is no reason to believe the current crackdown by the interim regime is any different. Instead, selective prosecutions of high-profile ex-ministers are a half-hearted distraction from the lack of institutional change. 

The establishment’s obstinacy in responding to this fundamental demand of the Hirak indicates just how vital a moment this has become for Algeria.

Anti-corruption efforts in Algeria are historically ineffective, and there is no reason to believe the current crackdown by the interim regime is any different. Instead, selective prosecutions of high-profile ex-ministers are a half-hearted distraction from the lack of institutional change. 

There is a feeling that Salah could fairly easily have cooled the situation in July after the first attempt at arranging elections failed, by replacing unpopular figureheads within the government or releasing political prisoners. The failure to do so has meant that Algeria has now reached a political deadlock that- crucially- was not inevitable in April.

Understandably, lukewarm anti-corruption efforts have done little to quell widespread suspicion of the establishment’s true intention: survival.

Containment of the protests has manifestly failed, and it is naïve of Salah to think that elections offer a genuine solution to the collapse of public confidence in government- even if, somehow, they manage to divert this particular crisis. Algerians have seen that they have the power to rattle their antiquated regime. It is not something they will forget. 

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.


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