Islamists in Algeria’s Electoral Landscape: Influences and Implications
Preparations for the forthcoming elections in Algeria, due to be held in April 2019, have been characterized by a unique range of debates and disputes concerning the nomination of candidates, both within and among the main political parties. These have not been limited to the political divisions over the nomination of the incumbent president – Abdelaziz Bouteflika – for a fifth term despite his “ailing health.”1 Nor are they confined to the military’s opposition to the nomination of a retired general. They now also include the nomination of Abderrazak Makri – leader of Algeria’s main Islamist party and Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, the Movement for the Society of Peace (MSP) – despite objections from the movement’s former leader Bouguerra Soltani, leading to divisions inside the MSP.
The electoral landscape and its difficulties
Although 200 people intend to run in the elections, the real electoral battle will likely be between four main candidates: President Bouteflika; former Prime Minister Ali Bebflis; retired general, Ali Ghediri; and the MSP candidate Abderrazak Makri. This lineup presents a number of problems, most notably:
- A genuine division between political elites and influential state institutions over the issue of political succession. This gives Bouteflika a relative advantage because he is the only candidate occupying the middle ground. Despite his ailing health, this position enables him to postpone and curtail conflict among the state’s centers of power. This provides some justification for maintaining Bouteflika’s symbolic presence in power as long as he lives.
- The nomination of retired general Ghediri raises the issue of the future role of the military in politics and his ability to overcome political conflict, especially in the absence of any official support. His unprecedented promise to enact “deep reforms in the military”2 if he wins has also raised concerns.
- The MSP’s nomination of a candidate opens the door for political and societal debate over the Party’s position in the internal political landscape, as it is the first serious attempt by an Islamist candidate to run for the presidency since the Algerian civil war. Previous attempts either lacked genuine prospects or did not have the support of a major force in the political landscape. This enhances concerns related to the potential return of Islamists to power – albeit in an open, competitive way, rather than in the manner of the bloody experience that followed the Islamic Salvation Front victory in the elections of 1991.
Islamist forces and their relative influence
The Islamist political blocs are divided into the following intellectual movements:
- The Muslim Brotherhood movement: the MB includes several official political parties with different levels of influence in the political landscape and conflicting stands on political issues. The following are the most prominent Islamist parties, all produced by splits occurring during the past two decades:
- The Movement for the Society of Peace (MSP) is the largest Islamist party. The MSP rejects Bouteflika’s nomination for a fifth term or the designation of any member of the current regime as his successor – such as his brother Said or a candidate from the military.
- The National Construction Movement was the first Islamic party to field a presidential candidate – the former minister of tourism, Abdulkader bin Qarinah.
- The Rally of Algerian Hope (TAJ) split from the MSP in 2012. It is the smallest Islamic party with the least influence in the country’s political landscape and usually supports President Bouteflika.
- The parties that follow Sheikh Abdullah Jaballah are a group of Islamist parties with weak influence. The founder of these parties, Sheikh Jaballah, is known for his decades-long track record of exiting political alliances due to internal differences. This has led to the emergence of new parties including the Al Nahda Movement, the National Reform Movement and the Justice and Development Front. All these groups support President Bouteflika and oppose MSP.
- The Islamic Salvation Front. Even though this group was officially dissolved and has been banned since 1991, it still poses a threat to the regime – particularly because of the overwhelming victory it achieved in the elections that year. Although later cancelled, the movement won the support of more than 3 million of Algeria’s 13 million registered voters in these elections.
- The Salafist current. The Salafists in Algeria are careful not to engage in party activities – a situation supported by the authorities. The key components of this current include “Scientific Salafism” and “Madkhali Salafism,” which are widely accepted by the state (which assisted their growth and spread in the country). In general, they do not take a stand against the ruling regime.
Implications of Muqri’s nomination
The major consequences of presenting Muqri as a presidential candidate include:
- A Deepening rift among Islamists: this is reflected in the increasing divisions among political Islamist blocs due to structural differences. Moreover, a long-standing political struggle exists inside the movement, which has translated into a split between the two Islamic candidates for the presidency – Abdulkader bin Qarinah and Abdul-Aziz Muqri. The situation has been exacerbated by two Islamist groups – the Rally of Algerian Hope and the National Reform Movement – announcing their support for Bouteflika’s candidacy.
- Further divisions inside the MSP: the decision to present Muqri as a presidential candidate does not represent the result of consensus within the movement. It was highly controversial and was intensely debated by the heads of the two radically opposed camps inside the movement, led by it former head, Abu Jarra Sultani, and its current leader, Abdul-Aziz Muqri. The two camps differ on the movement’s position toward the regime, which has ranged from support to reservation and eventually competition under the different leaderships of the movement. While Abu Jarra Sultani calls for more consensus with the regime, Muqri believes that the movement should oppose the regime. These differences may extend beyond the leadership to the movement’s grass roots, and therefore may negatively affect internal support for Muqri in the upcoming presidential elections.
- Societal division: the attitude of Algerian society towards an Islamist candidate remains influenced by the country’s negative political experience in the 1990s, as well as the fact that the past two decades of Islamist political participation has not offered anything that sets it apart from other political groups.
Therefore, in view of the divided positions of the Islamist presidential candidates, their electoral success will largely depend on their ability to secure the votes of the Islamic Salvation Front, given its relatively strong grass roots, social networks and unofficially justified presence in society.