Elections in Algeria: Everybody Loses Again

Algerians voted for a new parliament last Thursday in the country’s first national elections since the beginning of the Arab Spring. The results of the vote are underwhelming and leave little hope that the aching democratic aspirations of Algeria will be met anytime soon. This did not have to be the case. Some months ago, in fact, the specter of these elections filled observers of Algerian politics with a gulp of fresh air, when it looked like something, finally, new, might happen and herald real political reform. Thanks to the vibes of change emanating from their Maghrebi neighbors, Algerian political parties appeared to muster new energies and poise themselves to respond to this desire for change. No party, perhaps, felt these tremors more than the MSP-HMS one of Algeria’s largest Islamist-oriented parties. In January of this year, the MSP broke from a 13-year-old coalition with Algeria’s ruling nationalist parties, formed a “Green Alliance” with two smaller Islamist parties and predicted the inevitable victory of Islamism in parliament. Such a scenario was not implausible. The MSP had made their declaration against a backdrop of steady social unease, evidenced not in the least by scores of public immolations, and their presence gave urgency to the Algerian ruling parties’ plea to the people to vote massively. It looked, therefore, like we might have a real election on our hands.

Whatever new energy had percolated, however, it was not enough to shake the deep sense of apathy that so many Algerians have assumed towards a political system they know is not theirs. Thus the nationalist ruling parties may have technically won the elections (together they claim 62% of the vote), but in doing so, they have failed to shore up any popular credibility for the regime.  In what was billed as a referendum on the regime’s legitimacy, therefore, the majority of Algerians who did not vote (officially 57% abstention, but quite possibly much higher) implicates a loss for the regime’s ruling parties. The Green Alliance, for their part, came nowhere near to taking over the parliament, gaining only 10% of the vote. They are calling fraud and organizing a protest, but even if we more than double their results to what the MSP claims to have won, that is, to 22%, they still failed to convincingly get out the Islamist vote.  This leaves Algerians stuck again with an unpopular, lackluster, illiberal political regime and political opposition at a moment when the frustrated desire for competent politics remains high.

There are several timely lessons to be learned in all of this for both Algeria and the rest of North Africa. First it clearly illustrates some of the limits for new political Islamism in the region. Algeria’s MSP, like Tunisia’s Ennahda, Turkey’s AKP and Morocco’s PJD, has dedicated itself to a milder blend of identity politics and pragmatic policy positions than its forebears. After having participated in Algerian elections for more than twenty years, what the experience of the MSP proves, however, is that combining compromises and religious identity politics is not enough to buy lasting political relevance. The MSP has not been capable of consistently coming up with competent political strategies or overcoming intra-Islamist competition (two of Algeria’s most famous Islamist personalities, Abdallah Djaballah and Abdelmadjid Menasra ran on separate tickets). Last week’s elections are an indicator of just how little the MSP has to show for its years of participation.

A second lesson is that while illiberal democracies still have some shelf-life in the region, their expiration dates seem to be nearing.  Thus, even though President Bouteflika’s regime ran an actual political campaign, invited in hundreds of foreign electoral observers and put on all the show of a real democracy in motion, it wasn’t enough to convince Algerians that the regime had not toyed with the process all along. By tinkering at the edges and hassling all the small guys in the opposition, the state made the veneer of democracy that much thinner in Algeria and the promise of reform that much more hollow-sounding.

And that brings us to a final lesson, which is that for all of the hopes raised, the Arab Spring is also partly to blame for these diminishing democratic prospects in Algeria. The persistent political uncertainty of the region, with Libya to the east and Mali to the south, puts the shadowy, crooked, disparate forces who make the decisions in the country on the defensive and stacks the cards against any more political liberalization in Algeria. Which is why even if Algerian voters had called the regime on their game and voted in mass protest for parties of the opposition last Thursday, it was that much more likely that Algeria’s next leader would come out wearing a uniform, as Rachid Tlemcani put it recently. The menace hanging around Algeria’s presidential palace had implied so much already, making it difficult for Algerians to vote for the opposition (because they knew what would happen then) or vote for the regime (which was going to go on ruling anyway). So nobody voted. No legitimacy was distributed. No new hope for change was kicked down the road. And everybody loses in Algeria again.

Elections and Algerian Islamisms

At the beginning of last year, when protests built some steam in Algeria, its public face was young, democratic and mostly secular. But Islamists understood that the times were changing as well. Bouguerra Soltani, captain of the MSP-HAMAS, an Islamist party with Muslim Brotherhood connections and a member of the ruling coalition in Algeria for a decade, challenged the ruling parties in interviews and projected that a full democratic course had become inevitable. Abdallah Djaballah, one of the few consistent Islamist opposition figures in Algeria, also made appeals for further democratization and drew up his own plans for political reform. In the few moments when Islamists and democracy advocates pushed Bouteflika last year, as in pressing him in the parliament to repeal a deeply unpopular Emergency State Rule law, they won substantive concessions.

One could have hoped that these concessions and the success of united protest movements elsewhere in the region might have given enough impetus for the secular and Islamist wings of the opposition to unite forces, dramatically alter the composition of the parliament, push Bouteflika even harder and make an effective call for a new constitution.

At this point in the game, all of that seems unlikely. Much of the reason has to do with the Islamist electoral sweep in Tunisia and Egypt, which has heightened Islamist expectations for the same in Algeria. So high, in fact, that Soltani, in a game-changing move, pulled his party out of the presidential alliance last month and announced that Islamists would win a majority in parliamentary elections this May. As I’ve posted before, Algerian Islamists possess a formidable electoral base in Algeria which scholars have too often dismissed, and it is probable that Islamist parties will see their electoral numbers go up thanks to the region’s mood. However, if Soltani wants Islamists to take over parliament, and then drive for reform, he has his work cut out for him.

One of the greatest roadblocks to Soltani’s aspirations is that contemporary Islamism in Algeria is cut up into sharp divisions. No less than four major Islamist-inspired parties, in fact, will be contesting the elections in May, including Djaballah’s Front pour la Justice et le Développement and Abdelmadjid Menasra’s Front du Changement. Djaballah’s opposition credentials are beyond doubt and Menasra, a former MSP leader who split from Soltani after the party’s founder, Mahfoud Nahnah, died, is as impeccable and politically astute as they come. While Soltani has said that negotiations are in the way for the formation of an united Islamic political front, it is hard to imagine either Menasra or Djaballah working for the MSP under Soltani. Djaballah has consistently rejected offers to join other Islamists for more than twenty years now, and Menasra and Soltani are locked in personal conflicts which are difficult to sort out.  Many Islamists, in fact, bitterly dislike Soltani, accusing him of too much compromise on the one hand and too much authoritarian party politics on the other. And Algerians, unlike Tunisians and Egyptians, have already had the time to experience buyer’s remorse when it comes to Islamist electoral gifts. After twenty years of elections and ten years in political positions of some import, Islamist parties have garnered only modest political achievements and their electoral shares have declined somewhat in recent years.

The Islamist push towards the parliament also signifies that little energy is being devoted to a political alliance between Islamist and secular parties. As it is, Algerian secular democrats already have bad memories of protests which they started and that finished with Islamists winning elections. It is doubtful, however, that Soltani can achieve real reform in Algeria without them right now. These divisions, naturally, play into Bouteflika’s hand, and make substantive political reform in Algeria an elusive task.

This does not imply that Islamists or secular parties will not be able to take advantage of elections in May to confront the regime and push for more political changes. But in order to do so, Algerian opposition parties cannot assume that the winds of the moment will be enough to get them there. Which means that Soltani and company will have to pound the pavement with some convincing mobilization strategies or the road to gradual reform in Algeria will be very gradual indeed.