April 13, 2009 | Congressional Testimony
Intelligence Briefing #006: Algeria’s Elections
INTELLIGENCE BRIEFING #006
- CONSTITUTIONAL CHANGES. On April 9, 2009, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika won a third term with 90.24% of the vote. Paving the way for his re-election, the Algerian Parliament voted in favor of a constitutional amendment that abolished presidential term limits in November 2008. Bouteflika, who announced the proposed amendment on October 29, stated that the aim was “to enrich the institutional system with the bases of stability, efficacy and continuity,” and that the amendment would “allow the people to exercise their legitimate right to choose those who governs them and renew their confidence in them in all sovereignty.” While the amendment passed with 500 votes out of 529, opposition groups warned that the change could harm pluralism and the development of genuine democracy.
- AN “OPERATION OF NATIONAL HUMILIATION.” On February 12, 2009, President Bouteflika announced that he would seek a third term. Less than a month later, the six electoral contenders were announced by the Constitutional Council, even though the nation's largest opposition parties–the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) and the Socialist Forces Front (FSS)–promised to boycott the elections. RCD President Said Sadi commented: “Participating in such a competition would be tantamount to complicity in an operation of national humiliation.”
- ELECTION DAY. At the close of Thursday's polls, Minister of State of the Interior and Local Communities Noureddine Yazid Zerhouni reported that there was a 74% voter participation rate, well above the 58% that voted in the 2004 presidential election when Bouteflika won with 85% of the vote. In contrast, the last legislative election in 2007 had a very low turnout with officials reporting just 35% voter participation, down from the 46% that took part in the 2002 legislative elections, possibly showing a growing lack of faith in the government. However, it is important to remember that these are official numbers and may not be an accurate indication of actual participation rates. Reporting on the election, Liam Stack of The Christian Science Monitor noted that “polling stations in the capital were largely empty on Thursday.”
- RETURN TO ONE-PARTY RULE. Before the polls opened, it was relatively clear that Bouteflika would be continuing his presidency. Bouteflika's past two presidential terms have seen an increase in Algeria's general stability, economic growth, and an improved presence on the international stage–especially after the devastating civil war of the 1990s. However, for all of this progress, Bouteflika has effectively created a one-party state under the guise of a multi-party democracy. His National Liberation Front party (FLN) led the nation through its struggle for independence, and has remained in power with the help of its allies. The Presidential Alliance coalition comprised of the FLN, the army-backed National Democratic Rally (RND), and the Movement of Society for Peace (MSP) openly backed Bouteflika in the election. In its annual report on Freedom in the World, Freedom House highlighted that “parties close to the FLN made a majority in Parliament and can pass most legislation they deem important.” The dangers of one-party domination lie in the muffling of the opposition; those in power will most likely remain in power and will continue wealth and power consolidation. Over time, disenfranchised members of society may find themselves in a vicious cycle of powerlessness and diminishing opportunities for advancement. In a healthy and sustainable democracy, majority and minority voices can be heard allowing for balance and greater equality.
- A HUSHED OPPOSITION. The refusal of the largest opposition parties in Algeria, namely the RCD and the FSS, to participate in the election is an illustration of growing frustrations with the Algerian government. While there were five other individuals running, none of them could contend with Bouteflika's dominance in the political arena. Christian Fraser of the BBC News noted that with all the billboards in the Ancient Kasbah area of Algiers, “one might be forgiven for thinking that only one man is running.”
- MOUNTING FRUSTRATIONS. The increased stability that has occurred during Bouteflika's two terms came at a price. The changes made to the constitution and the constrictions placed upon the opposition preventing them from mounting a serious campaign against Bouteflika illustrate a growing powerlessness within the Algerian population. A general feeling of discontent and victimization has emerged as a result of the government's “neglect and contempt.” Popularly known as “la hogra,” the term is aptly described by the International Crisis Group as “the arbitrary nature of official decisions, the abuse of authority at every level, and the fact that state personnel are not accountable and can violate the law and the rights of citizens with impunity.” The very fact that a nationally recognized term has emerged describing how the populace views its government indicates that there are growing tensions under the surface.
- UNDERLYING ISSUES. Given the declining global economy and Algeria's economic dependence on hydrocarbon exports whose prices have dropped significantly, the nation's budgetary deficit is predicted to increase and economic growth will most likely slow. In tandem with this decline, official figures show Algeria has an unemployment rate of over 12%; however independent estimates provide numbers closer to 20%. Additionally, 70% of the population is under the age of 30. Considering these factors, there is cause for concern regarding the growing frustration with the government and the ability of jihadist groups to recruit the youth into their movements.
- POTENTIAL FOR RENEWED CONFLICT? Moving forward, Algeria must break with its tumultuous past to prevent falling into another vicious cycle of conflict. A contracting economy with fewer employment opportunities can easily play into the feelings of disenchantment potentially evolving into an explosive situation. Some of the triggers that sparked the last civil war are mirrored in Algeria today. Economically, the 1970s and 1980s marked a period of little growth with a significant drop in oil prices that severely affected the Algerian economy. Responding to the growing political clout of other parties, most notably the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), the FLN government cracked down and the military cancelled elections the FIS was set to win in 1992. In the aftermath, the situation devolved into one of violence. While today's political climate differs from that of the early 1990s, Bouteflika and the FLN's desire to remain in power, regardless of their popular support, may come with a significant price. With increasing feelings of helplessness and alienation amongst the populace, together with a shrinking economy, Algeria may experience an up tick in politically related violence as people seek a voice in a government that has ignored them.
Laura Grossman is a research analyst at FDD's Center for Terrorism Research. She is the co-author of a forthcoming monograph on homegrown terrorism in the U.S. and U.K.