Algeria’s Presidential Election: Dialogue and Approaches to Political Transition
The forthcoming presidential election in Algeria, scheduled for April 2019, remains at the forefront of public debate in the country. This election is of particular significance, given the recent deterioration in President Abdulaziz Bouteflika's health, which will affect his chances of being nominated for a fifth term in office. President Bouteflika is viewed as a source of stability in the country; if he is not nominated, an appropriate successor will need to be designated without delay. The election is also significant given the country’s poor economic performance and raft of socio-economic problems. These issues will be major considerations affecting the election, given that it is considered the primary means to facilitate the political and economic reforms required to address these socio-economic difficulties.
Early election dynamics and initiatives
The national reconciliation initiative presented by Algeria’s main Islamist political party, the Movement of Society for Peace (MSP), has been the focus of much debate in recent weeks. Among the key elements of this initiative are the launch of an inclusive political dialogue to establish agreement on a candidate to become the nation’s next President. This individual’s term in office will likely also serve as a transition period wherein the right political conditions may be established to allow the building of democratic practices. The national reconciliation initiative also invites the armed forces to engage in the political dialogue to help define and protect any resultant national consensus.
The initiative apparently calls on stakeholders to agree a sufficient presidential term to allow for a process of democratic transition, but it may also have other implications. It is perhaps for this reason that senior figures in the military and politics have rejected the initiative. The goals behind the Islamists’ initiative are as follows:
The initiative engages the army as a partner in – and a guarantor of – this arrangement, but also makes it legally responsible for any failure in this process. In doing so, it indirectly aims to end the army’s control and influence over the country.
The initiative, if implemented, would enable the Islamists to increase their authority, developing their marginal roles in public life into full participation in governance akin to their peers in other countries in north Africa such as Tunisia, Morocco and Libya.
The alternative to the initiative proposed by the Movement of Society for Peace calls for the re-election of Bouteflika for a fifth term in office. This option enjoys the support of the incumbent parties – notably the National Liberation Front (NLF) and National Democratic Rally. The attitudes of these parties were clearly reflected in the recent statements of their leaders; yet the official announcement supporting the re-election of the incumbent president has been postponed until September 28, 2018, during the scheduled meeting of pro-regime parties.
Political dynamics and the military
The Army Chief of Staff, General Ahmad Gayed Saleh, made a number of political references in a recent speech during a ceremony honoring distinguished military students on July 26, 2018. While he did not directly refer to any specific initiative, the speech indicated a rejection of the MSP initiative and of the involvement of the army in any political wrangling initiated by either side, adding that the army is well aware of the limits of its constitutional powers.
Gayed’s statement, however, can be interpreted as a tacit approval of Bouteflika's re-election, as he referred to the army’s loyalty to the supreme commander of the armed forces. More importantly, the speech included a message partly directed at elements linked to the state: the army will not allow either side to ignite local unrest and put Algeria at risk to advance their narrow agendas or self-interests.
This adds credibility to the theory that the national reconciliation initiative is not wholly a reflection of the perceptions of the Movement of Society for Peace, but rather is the result of prior coordination between Islamists and other forces linked to the state to serve their common interests – most notably to curb the military’s influence and preserve the civil character of the presidency.
The army’s open refusal to engage in any political conflict was supported by key pro-regime parties that also declared their support for Bouteflika’s nomination for another term in office. While in reality their position indicates a rejection of the Islamists’ initiative, these parties – notably the two major political entities, the National Liberation Front (NLF) and the National Democratic Rally – later declared that they agreed in principle to the related dialogue with the Movement of Society for Peace.
Pro-regime political forces and containment of the opposition
The pro-regime political parties agreed to meet with and talk to the Islamists after having announced their support for the reelection of President Bouteflika, while the Movement of Society for Peace declared that should their initiative be rejected, they would proceed to nominate their own candidate in the upcoming presidential elections. It seems, therefore, that there is at least partial acceptance of the initiative as a means to explore the intentions of all parties and any prospects for convergence. The partial approval of the initiative will also help to contain those Islamists who chose to boycott the last presidential elections.
Therefore, the recent actions of pro-regime political forces are not likely to have been inspired by a desire to link the National Reconciliation initiative with the presidential elections but rather to focus dialogue on a post-Bouteflika era. Under these circumstances, the army would not directly interfere in the dialogue and only pro-regime political forces involved in the process would represent the state.
Accordingly, the nomination of candidates for the presidential elections in the coming weeks or months will not bring an end to the dialogue. Some believe that there are more appropriate candidates and arrangements than those indicated in the initiative that would ensure a smoother political transition. At the top of this list of alternatives is a proposal to create the post of vice-president, which has been the subject of much debate in recent years. This step, of course, would require a constitutional amendment, as the new post would serve as means of advancing political transition.
This proposal seems to be the lowest-cost option in dealing with the dilemma of Bouteflika’s succession. Moreover, it appears to be compatible with the established structure of the state, wherein the army tacitly controls the internal political balance without the need to play a direct political role, which is left to pro-regime forces; but this should not prevent the nomination of a military figure to fill the new post of vice-president.