On the verge of celebrating 50 years of national independence in July, Algeria’s military-dominated regime faces in May a potentially humiliating and dangerous blow through a massive electoral boycott. Though already great majorities of alienated Algerians abstained from voting during the past decade, in this case the upcoming election of a new National Assembly is claimed by President Bouteflika to be as significant as the beginning of the national liberation revolution in 1954. Many regime opponents, however, see a massive boycott movement as the first opportunity for a de facto national referendum on despised authoritarian rulers. Apparently in the wings are Western powers, led by the US, ready to assess the potential precariousness of a much-appreciated North African strategic partner and reliable supplier of oil and natural gas. Rarely has this long-endorsed anarchist tactic become apparently so central to a regime’s very survival.
Compared to large political upheavals last year in neighboring North African countries of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Algeria in 2011 seemed remarkably quiescent. Conditions of poverty, badly inadequate housing, massive unemployment, political corruption and repression were objectively as severe as underlying conditions behind Egyptian and Tunisian revolts. Throughout the year, Algeria also experienced a long string of protest suicides, ubiquitous street riots and demonstrations, and political denunciations of the ruling regime in the press, but none of these sparked the significant social explosion that many expected.
The reasons were several, probably the greatest being a popular fear that political upheaval would return Algeria to the large-scale bloody decade of the 1990s that brought 200,000 deaths between Islamist violence and military repression. Additionally, the military-dominated regime in 2011 used pre-emptive bans and overwhelming police presence to quash attempts at explicitly political public gatherings and demonstrations. In turn, there were few effective links between militant autonomous trade unions, students, women’s organizations and opposition political groups, let alone among alienated street insurgents rioting on a wide variety of local issues.
On top of all of this, the oil and gas revenues-rich regime ($188 billion in foreign currency reserves) found it more expedient to appease various aggrieved and frustrated constituencies through targeted pay raises, jobs and new housing than to continue closing off any chance of social relief. As one commentator suggested, Algeria’s 2011 “Arab Spring” was thus primarily social in nature.
At the same time, the regime quickly adopted a “reformist” political face to stave off the rising tide of explicit political demands articulated throughout Algeria and the Arab world generally and to discourage the West from any thoughts of intervening as it had elsewhere. While claiming that Algeria already had a liberalized political context due to the proliferation of political parties, civil society groups and newspapers, Bouteflika announced a new series of “reforms,” including an end to “state of emergency” restrictions, opportunities for the first non-state TV channels, fewer restrictions on the press and a new round of National Assembly elections leading to a new national constitution. Nevertheless, this façade of change fooled few Algerians, despite Obama’s praise from abroad. Demonstrations and media expression remain as controlled as before, while behind the scenes the military security force, the DRS, continues to infiltrate and manipulate a variety of social and political groups.
The regime’s hoped-for prize showcase, therefore, is the National Assembly election on May 10th. With unprecedented concern for the symbolic “legitimizing” nature of the exercise, Bouteflika and Prime Minister Ouyahia made dramatic, even desperate, appeals to the public to vote. Additionally, nearly 500 foreign observers (including 120 from the European Union and a delegation of the US National Democratic Institute) have been invited (some say imposed by the West) to vouch for electoral transparency, in contrast with notorious electoral manipulations of the past. (The EU official signing this agreement, however, seemingly tipped his hand in lauding the already announced political reforms of the regime.)
Over many years, widespread abstention has been increasingly popular among Algerians to protest non-violently against the regime. The last national legislative election, for example, saw only 30% of eligible voters participating, though opponents claimed even lower numbers. In the last presidential election, in 2009, voter participation was apparently no more than 18%. Strong voter participation is imperative this time, claimed Bouteflika, to show the solid popular base of the system, thus discouraging NATO powers from intervening, as in Libya, if social instability becomes explosive. In turn, Ouyahia said that a low voter turnout, thus failure to endorse the regime’s political reforms, would expose Algeria to the interventionist designs of Gulf states and the US, a potential Islamist takeover effort and a repeat of the 90s bloodshed. It was a high abstention rate in 1991, he said, that facilitated the FIS Islamist victory in that year’s first round of legislative elections, thus forcing the military to intervene.
In recent weeks, the Algerian press within and outside the country has given much space to debate by opposition figures, academics and political groups and parties on the merits or not of abstentions on May 10th. (Not surprisingly, arguments for and against voting, among critics of the regime, seem comparable to those in the US left every four years.) As Marxist journalist Hocine Belalloufi summarizes, some proponents of the broad boycott movement take a moral stand against any collaboration with (and thus legitimization of) the fundamentally corrupt and authoritarian system. Others argue fatalistically that behind-the-scenes manipulations will prevent a fair election process or that safe allocations of seats for participating parties have already been decided. Even worse, some foresee the regime’s manipulations as leading to a new Islamist victory like that in 1991 and thus a new layer of oppression or even renewed bloodshed.
Djamel Zenati, a former leading figure in the moderate leftist FFS (Front of Socialist Forces), argues that this election merely prepares the way for an unrepresentative new constitution, as authoritarian as the present one, and for a hand-picked successor to Bouteflika in 2014. He sees the results as indeed inevitably manipulated to the regime’s advantage and compares this election to the notorious 1948 Algerian election in colonial times that promised an era of political reform but in fact, through grossly falsified results, prevented a substantial nationalist victory. He criticizes those who feel that the only way to survive as active visible political groups is to participate in the system’s elections, advocating an emphasis on autonomous grassroots organizing instead. “The society must construct itself before the State” by learning to practice genuine dialogue and compromise. For those who see the campaign as a public opportunity to present an oppositional critique, he argues that alienated Algerians are too turned off by authorized politics to listen.
As well, say boycott supporters, those who raise the spectre of foreign intervention because of a low turnout need to acknowledge that Algeria has never been truly sovereign. “In reality, foreign intervention, in a subtle and pernicious form, has never ceased in Algeria.” It is clear, says Djameleddine Benchenouf, that the US especially is in a full-scale strategic contest with China for control of the oil and minerals of Africa. In this battle, with the cooperation of the present Algerian regime, Algeria is a central prize. But if the regime gains less than 40% voter participation on May 10th in a fair electoral process, it will signify for Western imperialists the former’s too precarious and unreliable local control. Given the potentially explosive social despair, in this context, the US and other Western powers, especially France, would indeed be ready to choose other Algerian political allies to maintain their influence, a political opportunism already demonstrated elsewhere in North Africa during the past year.
While a large-majority boycott of the polls would no doubt be a strong symbol of the regime’s illegitimacy, it is not clear how this would add to what is felt by most within Algeria already. Boycott proponents also fail to suggest convincing ways in which this non-violent success could translate into a broad oppositional alliance, let alone overturning the regime. Some may hope that it would inspire fresh momentum for a wave of demonstrations and military neutrality comparable to the dynamics and outcomes in Tunisia and Egypt a year ago, only this time with the advance approval of the US and France who would hope thereby to contain any “excesses” of freedom that might threaten their interests.
By contrast, after weeks of speculation, the country’s oldest opposition party, the FFS announced that it rejected a boycott and would participate with a full slate of candidates. Though the decision was apparently opposed by many of the FFS base, the national leadership claimed that it was a tactical move justified on several grounds, whether or not any Assembly seats were gained. Participation, it argued, would help to re-energize the party at local levels, provide a platform to publicize the need for a radical pluralist restructuring of Algeria’s political system, and develop a basis for cooperation with other oppositional forces across the political spectrum. A similar overall rationale was offered recently by Sadek Hadjeres, an Algerian Communist militant for four decades from the early 50s.”
Others speculated that the FFS decision was a cynical ploy, given its own occasional past boycotts, to gain government campaign funds and possibly a deal for an assured allotment of seats in the new legislature. More benevolently, some speculate that perhaps FFS leaders were actually convinced that a radical political change, precipitated by a massive boycott and followed by escalated foreign interference, might indeed, as Ouyahia suggested, result in a new Islamist theocratic danger. In any case, the same question faces the FFS as those who promote the boycott: in what realistic way does electoral participation facilitate a broad political alliance for restructuring the system?
In the past decade, FFS (and other) candidates in the party’s Berber stronghold of the Kabylia region were scornfully dismissed by overwhelmingly successful grassroots boycott campaigns—as well as direct action raids on voting centers, burnings of ballot boxes, and other militant demonstrations of Kabyles’ deep alienation from the regime.
In everyone’s eyes, a crucial dynamic is the role of political Islam. The regime observes electoral successes of Islamists in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco and their significant new power in Libya and understands the still powerful appeal of Islamism in Algeria even after the bloody 90s. It thus seems quite willing to concede even greater roles for Islamists in governing Algeria, at least if such parties can be continually infiltrated by the DRS and the military maintain its dominant position. As many have pointed out, Algerian Islamists already have great power within and outside the government, as symbolized by Bouteflika’s decision to move ahead with plans to build in Algiers the world’s largest mosque outside of Saudi Arabia.
Several Islamist parties are already well-organized and have formed a tentative “green alliance” for the May election. However, these parties are already tainted by past collaboration with the regime. By contrast, Abassi Madani and Ali Belhadj, the two top leaders of the Islamist ex-FIS that won the 1991 first round of National Assembly elections (precipitating the January 1992 military coup and bloody decade) have themselves personally joined the call for an electoral boycott in May. Other ex-FIS leaders have yet to take a position.
Despite the presence of international observers, no doubt the regime will try to inflate as much as possible the rate of voter participation as well as the vote totals for its own preferred candidates. Already, it is accused of improperly counting tens of thousands of soldiers in a southwest military base to expand a regional electoral roll, of calling some FFS candidates in for interrogation by the political police and of arresting young activists of the MJIC (Movement of Independent Youth for Change) in Algiers for distributing pro-boycott flyers. Adding vocal pressure from the regime, Farouk Kessentini, head of the government’s human rights commission, on April 7th asserted that voting should be mandatory, with penalties for those who abstain, though no doubt it is too late to enact this measure for the May election.
But far more important than who sits in the constitutionally limited future National Assembly, the actual strength, composition and political consciousness of the boycott movement and the actual degree to which this political confrontation energizes the organized and unorganized opposition may together play a significant role in the next stage of Algeria’s political evolution. Of course, in the end, the most critical question is how this confrontation translates or not into meaningful political decision-making opportunity and freedom for Algerians at the grassroots after 50 years of post-independence authoritarian rule.
David Porter is a SUNY professor emeritus of political science and history and author of a new book, Eyes to the South: French Anarchists and Algeria, released last November by AK Press. He can be contacted at [email protected]
 Abderrahmane Mebtoul, “Algérie (2015/2020): comment éviter l’implosion sociale,” Le Matin DZ, April 6, 2012.
 D. Benchenouf, “Algérie: les cruciales élections,” Le Quotidien d’Algérie, March 24, 2012.
 Farid Abdeladim, “150 délégués européans superviseront le scrutin du 10 mai,” Liberté, March 21, 2012.
 Benchenouf, op. cit.
 Yahia Bounouar, “Le 10 mai n’est pas une élection ‘normale,’ c’est un REFERENDUM!” Kalima DZ, March 17, 2012.
 Benchenouf, op.cit.; Abdelhafid Larioui, “Le Vert et le Rose: perversion d’un printemps algérien,” Kalima DZ, March 27, 2012
 Bounouar, op. cit.; Djameleddine Benchenouf, “Algérie: le discours schizophrénique d’un regime aux abois,” Le Quotiden d’Algérie, March 17, 2012.
 Hocine Belalloufi, “Pourquoi il faut voter le 10 mai prochain,” Lanation.info, March 27, 2012.
 Djamel Zenati, “Elections législatives et dictature consultative,” El Watan, April 3, 2012.
 Larioui, op.cit.
 Benchenouf, “Algérie: les cruciales …”; Benchenouf, “Algérie: le discours… .”
 Larioui, op. cit.
 Dr. Nait Abdellah Rabah, “Le boycott des législatives du 10 mai 2012, est-il une faute politique gravissime?” lanation.info, March 13, 2012.
 Sadek Hadgeres, “Participation aux élections du 10 mai 2012, lanation.info, March 29, 2012.
 Larioui, op. cit.
 S. D., “Les bégalements de l’Histoire dans la tragédie algérienne,” Le Quotidien d’Algérie, March 18, 2012.
 Benchenouf, “Algérie: le discours… .”
 “Syndicaliste de lutte” (Algerian blog), April 9, 2012.