As far as the “suspense” involved, the presidential elections in Algeria were a non-event. Algerian people have been used to electoral masquerades endorsing the candidate selected behind-closed-door by those often broadly referred to as “le pouvoir” (“the power”): the leaders of the ruling party the FLN (National Liberation Front), the big business magnates and not least, the generals in the army and intelligence services, who all try and pull the strings of the political game according to their entrenched interests.
The frail and ailing 77-years-old Abdelaziz Bouteflika has ruled over Algeria for 15 years, being the candidate favoured by the different wings of the country’s ruling elite, -as well as of the major Western powers. For the latter, the convergence of interests with the Algerian regime is strategically important, both to pursue their imperialist adventures in the region, as well as to secure Algerian’s vast hydrocarbon supplies, even more so in the context of the unfolding crisis in the Ukraine.
Bouteflika “won” a fourth term in office on 17 April, with an official 81.53% of the vote; his victory was announced before the results even came out. Assuming this figure is accurate this would still mean that 5 million fewer people voted for Bouteflika than in the last presidential elections in 2009. The official turnout was for its part hardly exceeding half of the electorate.
This result hardly hides the growing and increasingly vocal dissatisfaction of large sections of the Algerian population, the crumbling of Bouteflika’s popularity, and the confrontation rumbling at the top of society. Significantly, no fewer than 463,000 officers from all sectors and army corps were mobilised by the regime to supervise this election, indicating the evident nervousness of the regime.
An authoritarian regime behind a façade of pluralism
Apart from Bouteflika, five other candidates were also running in this election. In reality, the vote appeared hardly different from the usual one-horse race, covered up with a façade of pluralism, as the other candidates mostly represented, with varying degrees, dissident factions of the sclerotic regime in place.
Some commentators have made a big case of the supposedly “only serious challenger” to Bouteflika, Ali Benflis. Benflis, who got 12.18% of the votes (the four other candidates shared the remaining 6.3%), has criticized the election results as marked by “fraud on a massive scale”. While profiling himself as an independent candidate, Benflis was Prime Minister during Bouteflika’s first term, and is from head-to-toe a product of the system; he has his own networks of supporters within the FLN and in the State machine, and represents no genuine alternative to the current regime.
Even Louisa Hanoune, the so-called “Trotskyist” candidate from the small PT (Workers’ Party), is known as being close to Bouteflika and his regime. Getting 1.37% of the votes, she was the first among the contending candidates to give a formal endorsement of the electoral results, calling for the respect of the supposed “will of the people”, and designating Bouteflika as the winner of the election.
Outside the sphere of the official candidates, there was a systematic crackdown on dissent during the campaign; protests held against Bouteflika’s fourth mandate or calling for a boycott of the election have been brutally suppressed by security forces. One private TV station has been closed for questioning Bouteflika’s re-election, and the government has been refusing visas for some foreign journalists and media outlets too critical of the President.
It has been a long time that many in Algeria, in particular the youth, stopped giving credibility to the grotesquely biased electoral processes in their country. Most Algerians do not even have a voting card, knowing that the result is a foregone conclusion.
Participation rates over the years have been constantly dwindling. Even the official abstention this time was at its highest in a presidential election since 1995, at 49% (against 26% in the last presidential contest in 2009). The very fact that the official figures, in all likelihood inflated, have to reflect this historically low turnout to appear credible, says a lot about the state of apathy of the electorate towards an election of which the rigged nature is a secret to no one.
Tensions grow in Kabylie
In the rebellious region of Kabylie in the North-East, only 25% participated, the lowest voter turnout in the whole country. On polling day, in the Kabylian city of Bouira, young people ransacked a polling station and confronted the police. At the beginning of the month, similar incidents had already been reported in Bejaia, the largest city of the region, where hundreds of demonstrators blocked the streets. They burnt the cultural centre where Bouteflika’ supporters were supposed to speak, preventing them holding a rally. A few days after the elections, security forces also violently clashed with activists in the city of Tizi Ouzou, still in the same region.
The Kabylie region is predominantly composed of Amazigh people (also referred to as Berbers), of which the cultural rights and language have been systematically violated by the Algerian nationalist regime. The region historically has been a hotbed of resistance and a starting point for mass movements against the central authorities. Following a classic method of divide-and-rule, the regime has for its part made a big deal of the “Arab-Islamic” identity card to oppose the demands of the Berber people. Typically, Abdelmalek Sellal, who was Bouteflika’s Prime Minister until mid-March, recently commented that there was “no problem of minorities in Algeria”.
In the present crisis and charged atmosphere, tensions are likely to be revived on the national question and in Kabylie, in particular. A principled attitude from the left is vital to bring a lasting solution to this question. This means standing for equal rights and self-determination for the Berber community, while linking this up with the need for a common struggle of all workers and poor, Arab and Berber, for socialist change, both in Kabylie and in Algeria as a whole.
And it is not only in Kabylie that people’s rage is growing. Rather than the election, the dozens of popular protests against the holding of election meetings across the country, and against Bouteflika’s fourth term in office, were a better barometer of the mood in many areas. Algerians are getting increasingly vocal against the corruption of the rotten establishment and the deterioration of their living conditions.
A new movement called “Barakat” (“Enough” in Arabic) has emerged, rapidly getting a certain echo among middle class youth and on social networks. Trying to mobilise people on the basis of an opposition to Bouteflika’s fourth term in office, Barakat is essentially leaning towards middle class layers. It does not really address the pressing social issues at the heart of the concerns of many working class Algerians. It talks about establishing democracy and fighting for transparent elections, which are all fair points. However the leaders of this movement do not question the economic foundations of the Algerian system.
A movement against the authoritarian and repressive character of the current regime needs to address and mobilise workers, the poor and the unemployed with clear social demands. These demands should positively point at the immense resources existing in the country, and explain that only the building of a mass struggle challenging the economic and political power of the rich corrupt oligarchs can bring structural change in favour of the “99%” of the population.
A regime in crisis
If anything, the elections exposed the unprecedented crisis gripping the regime. The relative and apparent “consensus” behind the figure of Bouteflika is cracking; profound fractures among the upper echelons of the regime appeared openly. This was especially the case between two centres of power: the army, closer to Bouteflika’s circle, and its intelligence branch, the Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS), which engaged into a sort of proxy war via the sectors and the organs of the media they respectively control.
This conflict reflects the ongoing power struggle between different factions of the ruling class, ultimately lining up for the control of the country’s wealth; a fight in which billions of dollars are at stake.
Since winning independence from France in 1962, the army and the intelligence services have had a firm grip on Algerian politics, and even more so following the military coup of Houari Boumedienne in 1965. The political role of the military and of the ‘services’ was strengthened through the 1990’s civil war. These institutions, after having orchestrated a coup in 1992 against the electoral victory of the radical Islamist party FIS (Islamic Salvation Front), established themselves as feared and all-powerful forces in their brutal confrontation with armed Islamist insurgents. This so-called “total war on terrorism” was used to impose a rule of terror of which the army’s barbarism rivalled the fundamentalists’ violence.
In 1999, the army generals and the top chiefs of the DRS agreed to appoint Bouteflika to the presidency. After allegations of fraud by the other candidates, Bouteflika ended up the only running contender, presenting himself as the candidate of peace and consensus, and winning with a landslide (though fraudulent) victory.
Playing on his own legacy as a veteran from the war of colonial liberation against French imperialism, relying on the exhaustion of the population following a decade of horrendous civil war, providing amnesty for the criminals on both sides of the 1990’s conflict, encouraging a cult of his personality, reducing the Parliament to a token chamber, favouring decrees over laws, playing a balancing act between social classes and between the competing ruling clans, Bouteflika had typified what Marxists call ‘Bonapartist’ rule.
However, the Presidency and the regime alike have become increasingly brittle over the years, and the social basis of support for Bouteflika, if still real among a layer, has melted away.
A senile President
During the campaign, two TV channels constantly broadcasted Bouteflika’s past speeches from better days, showing the President in good health. But the reality is very different. Bouteflika has been no more than a ‘ghost candidate’, as he did not appear at a single rally throughout the campaign, and struggles to stand or even speak. Largely senile, Bouteflika is today nothing more than a fragile figurehead, acting as a point of equilibrium between the different factions of the ruling class. The possibility of him finishing this presidential term is clearly put into serious question.
The very fact that, ultimately, all the ruling clans have accepted to go along with Bouteflika, once again, says a lot about how high the tensions run behind the scenes. Each faction is attempting to buy some time before the situation comes to ahead, and Bouteflika looks essentially like a fig-leaf to cover the regime’s crisis.
The power vacuum that the end of Bouteflika’s rule will open is likely to be accompanied by a period of deep instability, and fierce battles over the country’s future. The character this will take will depend not least on what role the Algerian people and the workers’ movement in particular, will play in these events.
Rise of workers’ militancy
Since the wave of revolutions in the region, the Algerian government, sitting on about 200 billion in foreign reserves from energy sales, has spent heavily on state subsidies, cheap credit and housing programmes in an attempt to calm down the mounting social anger.
Money has acted as a cushion to an extent, but there are limits on how far this method can go, in a country where the seaside villas and the fancy cars of the super-rich and the industrial-scale corruption of the top officials contrast with an ocean of dire needs, mass unemployment and survival wages for the rest of the population. While Algeria made its first billionaire appearance on the Forbes list of the “world’s richest Arabs”, half of the 35 million Algerians that constitute the population do not receive appropriate health care.
“The money is preventing a general social explosion, but all the time there are demands and smaller explosions” commented an editor of ‘Maghreb Emergent’, an Algiers-based economic website.
Furthermore, the IMF and imperialist countries are putting pressure on the Algerian government to implement wide-ranging neo-liberal reforms to open the country further to foreign investment, to slash state subsidies and workers’ wages.
In this context, a period of heightened class struggle is likely to unfold. Already in the last couple of years, Algerians have been increasingly resorting to demonstrations, sit-ins, strikes - as well as acts of desperation such as riots, hunger strikes and self-immolations - to make their grievances heard. In recent months, strikes have erupted in the port of Algiers, in the railway, in the State-owned energy company ‘Sonatrach’, at the French cement company Lafarge, among the pilots of the national airline company, and many others. Community protests are also taking place almost daily in some parts of the country for jobs, better housing, and access to water and electricity etc.
Accompanying this process, independent trade unions have grown like mushrooms in the recent years, providing new channels for workers’ struggles. The official union, the UGTA, meanwhile, has increasingly been reduced to a transmission belt for the policies of the regime. It has largely discredited itself in the eyes of most workers (it gave, once again, its electoral backing to Bouteflika for its fourth term in office).
While a period of growing struggle is on the map, things will though not move in a linear direction. The social crisis is deep and there is a huge vacuum in terms of political representation for the workers and youth.
The Algerian people, who had their own “spring” in the form of a mass insurrectionary movement in 1988, paid a very heavy price in the decade after for not having a genuine political alternative of their own. At the time, the reactionary Islamists of the FIS were able to catalyse people’s outrage at the corrupt and dictatorial Algerian regime because of the political vacuum prevailing among the poor. The ensuing orgy of violence during the 1990’s ‘black decade’, in which the Algerian masses were caught in the crossfire of a civil war which rapidly became a bloody conflict between two competing wings of reactionary murderers, emphasises why the working class and the poor having their own independent political voice is so vital.
Today, fundamentalist and jihadist groups in Algeria are weakened and discredited. On the other hand, there is a certain fragmentation and lack of leadership when it comes to the more reformist wing of the right-wing Islamist movement (the MSP, the Algerian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, supported Bouteflika from when he first took power in 1999 right up to early 2012, and called on a boycott of the recent elections, probably to avoid a new electoral setback).
However, lessons of the Algerian past are still valuable. The situation can change very quickly, and the danger of right-wing political Islam has not disappeared. The developments in the rest of the Middle East and North Africa, likewise, demonstrate the crucial need for building mass left organisations capable of providing the movement with a fighting and consistent programme for revolutionary action. This is to avoid the masses’ struggle to be overtaken by pro-capitalist forces, old regime cronies, religious sectarians and fundamentalist groups.
Otherwise, popular anger and frustration can take ugly turns. Ghardaia, a southern town where Arabs and Berbers have coexisted for centuries, was recently the scene of deadly clashes between the two communities. This is a warning of the danger of sectarian violence that can flare up in some parts of the country, if a united movement genuinely fighting for the interests of the masses and addressing the roots causes of the social problems is not built.
Also, after the harsh trauma of the decade-long civil war experienced in the 1990’s, a layer of the Algerian population continue to fear the instability that directly challenging the regime could involve, even though they might share the widespread discontent at the current rulers. The fear of the unknown and the thirst for a semblance of stability remain strong, especially among the older generations. The violent developments in countries like Egypt, Syria and Libya can strengthen this inclination, and are, in that sense, extensively exploited as scarecrows by the present regime.
Building for the future
Nevertheless a new generation of younger workers and activists, less affected by the defeats of the past, is emerging, providing a new spur to workers’ militancy, social protests, and more active questioning of the regime.
The dictatorship in Algeria is not any more what it used to be, and its stability rest upon precarious foundations. Even the important oil revenues are not immunised from the economic turbulences on the world market, and could expose the regime to sharp problems in the future.
Important sections of the working class are taking consciousness of their own forces, and this represents an important asset for the future. They will need their own independent organisations to prepare firmly establishing their stamp on the turbulent events to come.
Attempts by different wings of the ruling class and by reactionaries of various colorations to hijack the country can only be prevented by a mass political movement from below: a movement that can link up the battle for democratic rights, the growing number of working class and community struggles, and the justified demands of the Berber minority, in a general struggle against capitalism and imperialism, and for democratic socialism, appealing to workers and oppressed people across the Middle East and North Africa.