On November 17, 2019, the Algerian presidential election campaigns began. Five candidates are standing in the elections, which are scheduled for December 12, 2019. Nonetheless, the popular protest movement has continued to grow, and protesters have rejected the upcoming elections, calling instead for fundamental change in the Algerian political system and for the removal of the military establishment from the heart of political decision-making. This paper examines the political context behind the elections and the indicators and prospects for the political process during the current election period.

Political context behind the elections

Since February 22, 2019, Algeria has experienced a continued storm of protests, leading to the resignation of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika on April 2 and the arrest of prominent civilian and military figures from the former President’s regime. The constitutionally-valid presidential elections scheduled for 18 April and 4 July were both postponed.

Following the failure of national dialogue initiatives proposed by a number of political figures, with the support of the military leaders, the political conflict has consolidated around two opposing camps: on the one hand, the civil forces and youth organizations calling for the complete overhaul of the political system that has been in place since the country gained independence, including the complete removal of military influence from the heart of political decision-making; and on the other, the increasingly isolated military leaders seeking to maintain the current constitutional and political status quo in order to prevent the political and security situation spiraling out of control.

The 12 December elections therefore form part of the strategy adopted by the military establishment with the aim of setting new rules for the political transition which will pave the way for fresh dialogue with the political powers, based on the objective data gathered during the elections. There are three main variables in the current elections:

  1. The poor performance of the dominant political parties in Algerian domestic politics, including both the ruling parties — the National Liberation Front and the National Democratic Rally — and the traditional opposition parties, during the current election cycle.
  2. The large and ever-growing schism between the protest movement and the current political leaders, three of whom are standing in the upcoming elections. While the protest movement held its 41st rally on Friday, November 29, to demand an end to the election process, the candidates’ electoral campaigns have limped along without much enthusiasm or real media attention.
  3. The ongoing purge of the former regime, as leading figures from the political, military and security sectors and the regime’s close business associates are taken to court and prosecuted. This shake-up will undoubtedly have a significant impact on the shape of politics during the next period.

Candidates

The Constitutional Council has endorsed a final list of candidates, which has been approved by the National Independent Elections Authority. Five candidates are standing in the elections:

  1. Former Prime Minister Ali Benflis: A well-known political figure, in 1988 Benflis established the first independent human rights organization in the country. Around the same time, he was appointed Minister of Justice. He was part of the former President’s inner circle when the latter came to power. Bouteflika appointed Benflis as his prime minister, a role which he held from 2000 to 2003, while at the same time serving as the Secretary-General of the leading party, the National Liberation Front. Supported by certain sections of the Government, he stood against Bouteflika in 2004 and 2014. Despite his repeated defeat, he gained important standing within the political sphere and is the forerunner to replace Bouteflika. In 2015, he founded the Talaie El Houriat (“Vanguard of Freedoms”) party, and he sided with the protest movement in objecting to Bouteflika’s fifth term of office.
  2. Former Prime Minister Abdelmadjid Tebboune: A respected administrator, Tebboune worked in various provincial authorities around the country and as a minister in Bouteflika’s government before his short-lived term as prime minister from May to August 2017. He is seen as being close to the military and security apparatus, and he opposed Bouteflika’s fifth term. He has a strained relationship with the financial powers close to the former President.
  3. Azzedine Mihoubi: A famous journalist and poet, and former Secretary of State for Media and Minister of Culture under Ahmed Ouyahia, Mihoubi is the current Secretary-General of the National Democratic Rally and is seen as one of the candidates closest to the military. He is a defender of the role that the military plays as referee in the political conflict, and he has extensive external connections within Arab and foreign media and cultural circles.
  4. Abdelkader Bengrina: As one of the early leaders of the Islamic movement (with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood), he worked with Mahfoud Nahnah to found the Movement of Society for Peace in the early 1990s. He formerly served as Minister of Tourism and as part of Bouteflika’s government before establishing his own party, the Jibhat El Tagheer (“Front of Change”). He later left the party and founded the El Bina Movement ("National Construction Movement") in 2017. He participated in the protest movement against Bouteflika’s continued rule and is standing as a political Islamist candidate in the upcoming elections.
  5. Abdelaziz Belaid: A doctor and a lawyer, Belaid was a member of the National Liberation Front before setting up the Front El Moustakbel ("Future Front") in 2012. He stood in the 2014 elections, winning 3.36% of the vote.

Possible outcomes

It remains uncertain as to whether the elections scheduled for 12 December will take place. There are two possible options:

  1. The elections go ahead as planned. This is the most likely scenario, despite the risks, the greatest being that turnout will be too low as voters stay away from polling stations and large groups boycott the election process. Nonetheless, it remains less costly for the military establishment, which is monitoring the current elections, to hold the elections than to postpone or cancel them.
  2. The elections are postponed. This option is certainly possible if there is a severe drop in the expected turnout, if the political situation gets dangerously out of hand or if a deal is reached with the leaders of the protest movement on a transition process, as has been proposed by a number of political figures supported by various international organizations (in particular the European Union).

If the elections go ahead as planned, the competition will likely be between the two former prime ministers, Ali Benflis and Abdelmadjid Tebboune. In that scenario, Ali Benflis is the most likely victor, as he has a more secure voter base and considerable practical experience in politics. The military establishment may also concede to work with Benflis to facilitate negotiations with the protest movement, as he has retained strong connections with active members of the movement. One indicator of this possibility is the publication by the pro-military newspaper El Moudjahid of a poll favoring Benflis to win the upcoming elections.

                Abdelmadjid Tebboune still stands a chance of winning, however, as he enjoys the highest level of trust among the current military leaders. While he has voiced his opposition to the financial cartel, his son has been accused of involvement in a corruption scandal. The military establishment may also back Tebboune if no agreement can be reached with Benflis on the guarantees that need to be provided after the elections and if Benflis’s prospects remain the strongest. None of the other candidates have any real hope of winning the elections, even a candidate such as Azzedine Mihoubi who enjoys a close relationship with the military. As for Abdelkader Bengrina, although he represents the Islamist voice in Algerian politics, he will win only a small proportion of the vote.

Post-election political scene

There are two likely scenarios:

  1. The elections take place under acceptable political and procedural conditions regarding voter turnout (at least 30% of the eligible population), voting transparency and the level of security and stability. In this scenario, the elections will produce a new status quo that cannot be ignored and that will force the political powers and the protest movements to accept the legitimacy of the elections and the subsequent attempts to design a new political system, including drafting a new constitution and revising the legal and organizational code for politics in line with the pledges made by the leading candidates in the elections.
  2. The elections fail as a result of low voter turnout or as a result of the efforts of the protest movement to thwart the elections in the main cities. In this scenario, the elections will merely fuel the internal political conflict, thereby forcing the military establishment to seek a framework through which to pursue negotiations with the protest movement in order to resolve the political crisis.

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