Schrödinger’s Election

April 2014 seems to be election month: presidential elections in Afghanistan and parliamentary elections in Hungary have already taken place, and the staggeringly vast Indian elections are in progress (and will be for the next month).  Yesterday, Guinea-Bissau went to the polls (finally), as did Macedonia.  Finally, on the 30th of April, to everyone’s trepidation, Nouri al-Maliki will probably manage to wring another term as Prime Minister from the Iraqi people.  All of these votes have received or will receive a lot of publicity, but there is another country whose election process this month has been resolutely out of the news: the People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria.

In part, one of the reasons Algeria’s presidential election, which takes place this Friday, is going un-discussed is that everybody already knows the result.  Abdelaziz Bouteflika, of the National Liberation Front, the incumbent since 1999, will win a fourth term as the country’s head of state.  What could be less interesting than a predetermined election result? Yet the election has been under-reported also because nobody knows the actual result, that is to say: not who will win the vote, but who will win the politics, and what significance that might hold.

Bouteflika votes in Algeria’s parliamentary elections in 2012 [Image from Wikimedia].
A Candidate to Succeed Himself
That Bouteflika, already 77 years old, is in extremely poor health is one of North Africa’s worst-guarded political secrets.  Already ill with stomach cancer since at least 2008, he suffered a reported stroke last year and has spent more of his most recent presidential term in a Parisian hospital than in Algeria.  Upon his return to Algiers in July last year it was triumphantly reported that he was still able to move both of his arms.  Indeed, it was widely expected that Bouteflika’s term in office was coming to an end until the party’s sudden announcement of his candidacy in late February at a hastily-convened FLN party conference.  This decision stunned several observers –Le Monde’s headline rather pleasingly read “Abdelaziz Bouteflika: candidate for his own succession”– and outraged many in Algeria.  On the face of it, it seems like a terrible decision.  So why the hell have they done it?

The answer undoubtedly lies with the Algerian government’s secret power-brokers, who are usually called (in characteristic French) le pouvoir (“the power”).  The pouvoir consists of the upper echelons of the military apparatus, key members of the Algerian secret services, the DRS (Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité), and the board of the Algerian state oil company Sonatrach, as well as the two major political parties, Bouteflika’s FLN and the National Rally for Democracy (RND).  These factions do of course engage in regular struggles for power, and the run-up to this week’s election seems to have been a period of particularly vicious warfare.  Nevertheless, the edifice is stable and competent: the pouvoir has run the show in Algeria since 1992, throughout the entire civil war and several nominal changes of party control [1].

It is safe to assume that, with Bouteflika in ill health, the pouvoir has a solid plan for his succession and already knows precisely who will be following him into the Presidency.  But that may not be enough – as Mubarak taught us, the years of uncertainty before an impending transfer of power are always the most dangerous for the continuation of an autocratic government.  Throughout his time in office, Bouteflika has been harsh on anybody who mentioned the possibility of a successor, and politically exiled many whom he suspected of disloyalty (Ali Benflis, Bouteflika’s PM from 2000 to 2003, ran against his former boss in the 2004 elections, lost, and was subsequently ejected from the party; he is now the RND’s presidential candidate next week).  But Bouteflika is no longer in charge (as a researcher I met recently said, “I’m not even sure he’s still alive!”) and the pouvoir will be anxious to settle the issue.

The Algerian rumour mill currently asserts that after the election, the Algerian government will create the post of Vice President [2], which will be filled by whichever functionary the pouvoir has decided upon (the rumour mill has no conclusive information on that juicy little titbit).  This plan has two major benefits: firstly, it makes the succession process purely constitutional, if not actually democratic; secondly, the open appointment of a Vice President after the elections will clear up the uncertainty surrounding the country’s future.

Who Wins the Politics?
However, this raises another question: why does the pouvoir not simply replace Bouteflika with their chosen candidate immediately, rather than going through the charade of electing a man who is, to all intents and purposes, dead? One plausible explanation is that the Algerian élites do not wish to set the precedent of elections changing who is in charge.  Keeping the identity of the President’s successor hidden even from senior political figures before the election results may have some benefits for the pouvoir as well, helping to keep potentially restive figures in check.  Ultimately, however –and this is the more interesting part– this is all speculation.  We have no idea.

Since Bouteflika’s return from his medical exile in Paris, Algeria’s political scene has become even more opaque than usual.  A series of DRS reshuffles, possibly organised by Bouteflika loyalists against the rumoured head of the pouvoir, the enigmatic General Muhammad “Tawfiq” Mediene, broke out in the late summer, and tensions have apparently been high since: just before Bouteflika’s candidacy announcement, the head of his party openly demanded Mediene’s resignation.  What it all means is anybody’s guess: for those who are interested, the Moor Next Door outlines several dozen competing theories of the significance of the reshuffles.  Therefore, although Bouteflika is almost certain to win the election [3], the question of whether that benefits or hinders his allies in the pouvoir remains unanswered.

Hopefully, after the elections on Friday and the (rumoured) appointment of a Vice President, the matter will be at least partially resolved.  Then, and only then, will we find out what on earth has been happening in Algeria these past few months.  But you never know.

Although Algeria has a pluralistic party system, with several groups competing for seats and votes at each election, these parties represent interests and figures within the pouvoir rather than having much of a popular base.  Parliamentary election results, while not indicative of much in the way of Algerian national sentiment, are therefore extremely valuable tools for calculating the relative strength of government factions.

[2] This would make Algeria one of only 12 countries to have both a Prime Minister and a Vice President.  The others are the 4 Communist nations (China, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam), plus Bulgaria, Equatorial Guinea, India, Iraq, Mauritius, Nepal, Syria, and Uganda.  The United Arab Emirates also has a Vice President, although it is coterminous with the Premiership.

[3] There is a theory (which seemed ludicrous to me when I first read it but now appears more plausible) that the pouvoir will engineer the victory of Ali Benflis, the RND candidate, against Bouteflika and his allied interests.  It does seem far-fetched, but in Algeria that probably only makes it more likely.


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