Bouteflika or not, Algerians know the ballot-box is empty

Bouteflika or not, Algerians know the ballot-box is empty
Comment: Rumours abound as the Algerian president's appearances become increasingly rare, but whatever comes next, it is unlikely to change much for Algeria's citizens, writes Yasmina Allouche.
6 min read
31 Mar, 2017
Algeria's ailing president called off Angela Merkel's visit last month, due to his ill health[AFP]

The public appearance of a president is usually not news worthy but in Algeria it is breaking headlines. If his first public appearance in a while earlier this month was meant to put the raging rumours of his death to bed, the skeletal, shadow of a leader's appearance had something of the opposite effect.

Rumours of his declining health also provoked pertinent questions over the 80-year-old's successor, and Algeria's future once the president ends his time in office in 2019 or, in the more likely event, dies before then.

While for some, the end of his rule will spell disaster, for others little change within Algeria's affairs is almost a given. Though his achievements may hold the answer to Algeria's path of development, it is the wider question of who truly holds power that will determine Algeria's demise or continuity.

Bouteflika in office

The end of Bouteflika's desperate hold on to 18 years of power provides little comfort for Algerians looking to their deteriorating social predicament, who find their once capable leader an embarrassment to the country's diplomatic credibility.

His first election in 1999 was a welcome change for many Algerians and the international community, when the civil war in the 1990s was raging at new levels of depraved violence.

The first civilian candidate to contest the tradition of the military's pick of presidents, the previously self-exiled leader was elected with nearly 74 percent of the vote which was viewed as a national referendum for stability, rather than an indication of faith in his abilities.

Placing national reconciliation at the centre of his politics between 1999 and 2001, Bouteflika sought to cement his legitimacy with the objective of restoring Algeria's standing within the international sphere, through economic nationalisation and domestic normalisation.

Algerians have long given up on the power of the ballot in bettering their affairs

Following his election, Bouteflika's Civil Concord bill passed quickly into law. His reconciliatory policies were based on the logic of impunity, remuneration and national amnesia- "how are you going to leave this war behind if you don't forget?" Bouteflika would tell a meeting with mothers of the disappeared in 1999.

In 2005, the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation suspended any legal action against members of armed groups who had not engaged in specific acts of violence, and criminalised criticism of government agents through the objective of erasing state culpability in the atrocities.

An extension of the Clemency Law initiated by President Liamine Zéroual in 1996, the reconciliation policy may have brought temporary and necessary peace, but it failed to address the structural causes of the civil war. Instead it served only to postpone the crisis and failed to dissolve the political stagnation and financial disintegration gripping the country.

The process did, however, make Algeria into a key player in the US' "War on Terror"; Washington lifted its arms embargo soon after the war's end, and integrated Algeria into its "Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative".

Algeria will need to decide whether its negotiated solutions to conflicts will truly defy the intensifying threats surrounding it

By 1999, Algeria was in a position to host the thirty-fifth OAU summit, create the bureau of African affairs at the Foreign Ministry and adopt the OAU's "Convention on Terrorism".  

Bouteflika's defining feature of noninterventionist politics and the respect for the inviolability of borders and sovereign equality is what defines Algeria's diplomatic standing today.

This has seen the country advocate for mediation and political dialogue (over armed conflict) as the best method for achieving for peace settlements. Its ardent rejection of NATO's intervention in Libya in 2011, armed interference in the conflicts in Yemen and Syria and its high-profile mediation efforts in Mali, Tunisia and Libya are all examples of this.

Such a strategy may have proven successful, but the region's changing geopolitics mean its traditional policy of non-intervention may not always be relevant. Algeria will need to decide whether its negotiated solutions to conflicts will truly defy the intensifying threats surrounding it. Efforts in bolstering its defensive stance may be more advantageous than shifting to the offensive for the sake of its national security.

Algeria post-Bouteflika - cause for concern?

For many critics, threats to post-Bouteflika Algeria lie in violent religious extremism, previously kept at bay by his iron-fisted measures. A dangerous power vacuum could occur, with the tensions buried since the civil war rising up, and ripe for exploitation.

However, violence on the scale witnessed during the "national tragedy" of the 90s is unlikely to occur. For many interested in political Islam, the establishment of an Islamic state in Algeria is simply no longer a binding agenda; many have since defected to more "moderate" forms of political Islam.

  Read more: Where has Algeria's revolutionary spirit gone?

Any Islamist movement would be hard pressed to garner the same populism as the Islamic Salvation Front in the 90s, when the introduction of a multi-party system allowed the group to run and win the first round of elections before the military cancelled the process, igniting the civil war.

Indeed, Islamists have since failed to make the same mark on the electorate, with only a handful of seats gained each time.

However, the notion that Bouteflika's death will act as the final blow that sends Algeria from the clutches of safety into the chaotic abyss, are perhaps not completely unfounded.

But predicting the path Algeria will take post-Bouteflika is also not as straightforward as it may seem, and there is good reason to believe that predictions of Bouteflika's death equating to a return to instability remain little more than guess work.

A stagnant political scene

Where Algeria may have previously paid its way into social peace thanks to the country's hydrocarbon wealth, it is unlikely such a solution remain useful.

With the decline of oil and gas prices, rumours of Bouteflika's demise growing ever-louder and the absence of a power-sharing mechanism representative of all political groups, a renewal of the current political system or regime shakeup still seems unlikely.

The inability of the political elite to rejuvenate its domestic political system is jeopardising the country's future

For many years now, Algeria has had its affairs run by an opaque military and political collective referred to as "le pouvoir", or "the power," where decisions are conducted in the background through a consensual system in which reforms allow the president increasing powers.

The People's National Army remains one of the country's strongest institutions, and although Bouteflika may officially govern Algeria, it is the military and the political clique within the ruling elite, that has long ruled its affairs. Bouteflika or not, this is unlikely to change.

The inability of the political elite to rejuvenate its domestic political system is jeopardising the country's future. Any power void is simply likely to be filled by the institution of the military that has the capacity and resources to assert effective control nationwide.

The Algerian people are the only ones able to counter such a power mechanism - but they have long given up on the power of the ballot in bettering their affairs. The only situation Algeria faces after Bouteflika is stagnant continuity.

Yasmina holds a Masters in International Conflict Studies and has a particular interest in Algeria and the Maghreb region. She also regularly organises seminars and events on the MENA region.

Follow her on Twitter: @animsche

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.