Last week’s Presidential election in Algeria saw Abdelaziz Bouteflika claim a supposed 81.5% of the vote. This leaves the country without any obvious route towards the type of political renewal which might allow it to transcend a turbulent past, and move towards a genuine democratic polity, writes Rebecca Mavin.
Bouteflika’s victory at the polls did not pass without controversy. His main opponent Ali Benflis, whose tenure as Prime Minister from 2000-2003 and defeat in the 2004 Presidential elections had not deterred him from announcing his candidacy, cried fraud in response to the results. It is noteworthy that a man so familiar with the Algerian political scene should respond with surprise to the fact that his campaign – characterised by recovery, development and freedom – was so comprehensively silenced.
“Bouteflika’s victory at the polls did not pass without controversy”
Benflis knows better than anyone that politics in Algeria has long ceased to depend on the substance of what politicians promise or say, but rather rests almost exclusively on the performance and rhetoric of those in government. Politics lies in the hands of a select few, who manipulate the country’s bloody history to legitimise a leadership which promotes development and peace with one hand, and tacitly brutalises its opponents with the other.
More horrifyingly, Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) alleged murder of fourteen Algerian soldiers highlighted the continuing presence of the very voices the government claims to be protecting the country from. While this gritty attack suggests that Algeria is still not free of its conflicted past, the leading National Liberation Front (FLN) have attempted to spin the violence in their favour. Bouteflika is still in power precisely because it is only he who can stamp out Islamist aggression, they say.
Perhaps the most pertinent question is not whether the FLN leadership is capable of sustaining peace and leading Algeria out of its conflict-ridden history, but rather for how much longer Bouteflika’s presidency can maintain its theatrical imitation of democracy. At present, it appears threatened from all sides: AQIM is seemingly able to take out its troops with ease; civil society is abuzz with the emergence of the Barakat (“Enough”) movement, calling for fresh blood; western observers are questioning AQIM’s responsibility for Sunday’s attacks, reminding us that the Algerian state is not averse to creating threats which it can then claim to have defeated.
Of course, conjecture like this is not enough to inform political opinions or decision-making. And moreover, older generations of Algerians provide some genuine support for Bouteflika and his ability to maintain a fragile peace. It is no co-incidence that Algeria failed to follow in the footsteps of its North African neighbours, who ousted their leaders in the Arab Spring.
The country’s memories of conflict remain at the fore of its political agenda, with many Algerians supporting corrupt rule over future instability. But the heightening presence of civil opposition to the old rule is not a force to be ignored. Notable sections of the population are growing tired, and allegations of electoral fraud are unlikely to assuage their doubts.
At present, Algeria is teetering between a desire to confine its harrowing past to history, and a profound fear of the unknown. Even Benflis – with his commitment to renewal and democracy – did not challenge the ingrained norms that have come to symbolise peacetime leadership.
However, the familiarity of Benflis and his political agenda could be precisely what gains him ground. As the only feasible opposition candidate, Benflis’s potential ability to provide both continuity and gentle change could allow him to base his future politics on the promise that he possesses an intimate knowledge of Algeria which would allow him to safeguard the security and peace wrought by Bouteflika’s rule, whilst also sparking changes which would make this peace more durable. This could prove a safe and appealing option to many Algerians, who resent Bouteflika but fear the consequences of substantial change.
“Notable sections of the population are growing tired”
But as a new generation of politically active Algerians come of age, the status quo embodied by this older generation of statesmen is beginning to appear more and more unsustainable. The calls for democracy and transparency which have echoed across the Arab world in recent years are not going unheard.
For Algeria to move beyond it’s past, it needs to make it precisely that – the past. The fervent nationalism which has, for so long, represented a safety net against extremism and violence must be transcended in favour of political diversity and dynamism. The west – most notably the United States – must tone down its support of Algeria’s paper thin democracy, and instead promote the genuine dialogue and democratic choice which will facilitate the healing of the nation’s deep wounds.
Such a situation no longer seems like a distant dream for Algeria. Bouteflika’s frailty acts as a reminder that he is not eternal. If the FLN cannot find a replacement who commands the same level of loyalty and deference – both from within the party and from the wider public – then the moment may be ripe for the type of change which will bring about meaningful, sustainable development.
For now, however, we must only hope that Bouteflika’s self-proclaimed reputation as a king-pin of Algerian peace is robust enough to stop any further violence in its tracks.