On the eve of parliamentary elections in Algeria on May 10, President Abdul Aziz Bouteflika gave one of his solemn televised speeches about the future of the nation. Apparently oblivious to the irony of the situation, the 75-year-old man told the audience that it was time for the old guard to step aside and for a new generation of young Algerian leaders to take on the responsibilities of the nation’s future.
Barely 48 hours later, the Algerian interior ministry announced a resounding electoral victory for Bouteflika’s ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) party, in power since 1962, and the FLN spin-off party run by the Algerian prime minister, giving them a comfortable majority for another four years in the Algerian parliament.
The elections may or may not have been rigged. Some of the 40-plus participating parties lamented irregularities, though they appear to have been limited. The official voter turnout of 42.36 percent has been widely questioned. EU and African Union observers were allowed to monitor the voting process and then prevented from accessing national poll lists. Other organisations, including the respected Carter Center, were invited at too short a notice to prepare an observer mission.
Be that as it may, democracy isn’t just about elections. It’s about a real choice.
In Algeria, the ruling elite has been working overtime to prevent the people from making a real choice, tirelessly selling the myth of the country’s exceptional path - dubbed the “Algerian Spring“ in the language of the FLN. According to this narrative, Algeria will not follow the direction of other Arab Spring countries because it has been holding democratic elections since 1988 - which led first to the victory of radical Islamists and then to a brutal civil war that cost at least 150,000 lives between 1992 and 2001.
The regime’s propaganda was extremely successful in that it led to widespread fears of a return of the black decade, coupled with endemic levels of apathy among the population. A sense that nothing will change kept people away from the ballot boxes; a sense of fear kept many of those who voted from considering alternatives to the status quo. The election results are thus a sign that this propaganda is working, rather than the beginning of a transition to genuine democracy.
Democracy in today’s Algeria must mean popular sovereignty over the use of massive national wealth, including both natural resources and cash reserves. Algeria holds some $185 billion (Dh679 billion) in foreign currency and is one of the largest oil and gas producers in Africa. The country needs a large national debate, with genuine options presented to the people to decide on the best use of this fortune, a fortune the jaded population believes is greatly diminished by corruption.
Democracy in Algeria must mean sovereignty over security and the army. The country’s military expenditure puts it at the top of the entire African continent and the annual budget has just been increased by 40 per cent. Yet the military, as well as all security apparatuses, remain outside civilian control, as they have been for half a century. Powerful generals also hold the key to Algeria’s interior ministry and a questionable foreign policy that values warm relations with some of the most atrocious regimes, including those of Muammar Gaddafi and Bashar Al Assad.
Democracy in Algeria must also encompass popular power to depose those in power - and hold them accountable. Algerians have never done either. For many years, the ruling elite has been running the country above the heads of the masses. Regime figures accused of embezzling the country’s wealth continue to hold power with complete impunity. Bringing public officials to justice for illegal personal enrichment would be an important step towards a credible reform process.
But perhaps most important of all, a viable democracy in Algeria, as elsewhere, requires an independent public sphere.
A genuine opening is needed to allow for associational life to flourish, so that civil society can fulfil its crucial role as an intermediary between the private person and the state. Regrettably, Algeria has recently taken a major step backwards by passing a new NGO law that drastically limits the scope of activities and funding for associations. The new regulation stipulates that activities must not contradict “national values” or “interefere in the internal affairs of the country” – phraseology commonly used by authoritarian regimes that see freedom as a threat to their rule.
An independent public sphere must also entail guarantees for freedom of speech that go beyond lip service. Independent media need to be allowed to play their part in advancing vibrant, goal-focused national debates, without manipulation by the ruling elite. In the pivotal battle for public opinion, an unfair regime advantage distorts political will and makes any elections – fair or not - meaningless.
Allowing more political parties to run doesn’t mean more democracy. Giving emotional speeches and calling for the youth to assume power doesn’t either. And inviting some observers to monitor elections is a calculated risk one can take if the results aren’t likely to change the status quo. Only credible, transparent and verifiable measures by the ruling elite to address the glaring democracy deficit in Algeria will change the current stalemate.
In the meantime, Algerian elections are bound to remain nothing but a quadrennial theatre play in which regime figures are both playwrights and thespians.
Belabbès Benkredda is an Algerian-German debate advocate and writer based in Dubai and Tunis. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/abulavinia