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Bouteflika reigns supreme

April 15, 2009

Sort of late to be commenting on the Bouteflika reelection now, I guess, but here’s what Lameen Souag had to say:

I would start mocking the guy, but why bother? With figures like that, he’s making a fool of himself with no help from me. Time was when he was willing to settle for figures that naive observers might be capable of taking seriously; as he turns senile either his intelligence or his capacity for shame must be declining (…)

In case you were wondering how this result was achieved, here’s my best somewhat informed guess: In the countryside, especially in areas like the Sahara where tribalism is still present, the local patriarchs simply tell everyone to vote en masse for the President, on the basis that he will stay in power no matter what they do and a conspicuous display of loyalty will earn them government investment (although even that wouldn’t be enough to produce things like the 97% turnout in Tissemsilt without further fraud.) In the cities or the larger towns of the north, practically nobody bothers to vote apart from people on government payrolls, so they simply exaggerate the participation figures.

To have a closer look at the numbers, including much post-poll commentary from the participants, you should of course turn to The Moor Next Door. (My favorite quote was Mohammed Sa’id who said he had achieved 100% of his goals in running for the election, after finishing last with 0.92% — sure he did, since his only two goals were to provide fake competition for the president and win 15 minutes of fame.) Also, don’t miss the wider regional perspective provided by Larbi, according to whose analysis Bouteflika in fact only finishes third…

And then, when your appetite is sufficiently whetted, there’s this truly excellent sum-up of the Bouteflika era by Jacob Mundy in MERIP. Have a taste of the introduction:

Shoes and pants soaked with rain, I tagged along with a journalist from the popular Arabic daily Echorouk — his paper my umbrella — while he visited polling stations in the Belcourt neighborhood of Algiers on the day of local elections in November 2007. At the first site, disgruntled party officials quickly ejected us. We did not have the right papers, they said, and the police who looked on bored were inclined to agree. At the second station, we kept our distance. Watching for half an hour, we could count the voters who entered on two hands. Next to us stood four youths, escaping the rain under a shop awning. They laughed at us when we asked if they were going to vote. Down the road we saw an older gentleman on his way back from voting. For the occasion, he had donned a woolen Nehru-type cap and a brown burnoose, to which he had proudly affixed a medal earned during the war for independence from France (1954-1962).

Having set the scene, Mundy goes on to argue that much Algeria commentary misses the point, that Bouteflika is no random tin-pot Presidente; on the contrary, he’s working Algerian politics with considerable skill and a deep feel for local conditions and history. He’s an authoritarian ruler rooted in Algerian political reality. This is an argument I have plenty of sympathy for, and which Hugh Roberts has written so well about. Yes, the election was a fraud, and yes Bouteflika is a dictator, and yes, Algerians are sick of their political system, but at the same time, he’s neither just flimsy cover for a military clan, nor is he a despot like Saddam Hussein.

Bouteflika’s asendance in Algeria is the result of a cautious but persistent power-hoarding process, intertwined with a deliberate project of nation-building (or re-building). All the while, Bouteflika has been slowly remodelling the country’s politics in a way that hasn’t been possible since Chadli, and he has been highly successful given the many obvious constraints: it seems that, for better or for worse, someone is finally steering that big creaky ship called Algeria, after years adrift at sea. The great unknown is whether someone else will be able to pick up where he leaves off, or whether he — powerhungry and suspicious — will even allow a successor to emerge in time. The risks of elite  vacuums and economic failure loom large, as Bouteflika has taken Algeria all the way from chaos into one-man-rule, rather than into the institutionally presidential dictatorship which would frankly have been preferable. (Functioning democracy really isn’t among the options offered.)

Of course you must read it all, but I can’t help pasting an excerpt:

After the 2004 election, it seemed inevitable that Bouteflika would seek to lift the two-term limit for the presidency. The reason for this — and the reason why Bouteflika’s third term is a blessing and a curse — is that there seems to be no other political force in Algeria capable of replacing the old chieftain. While Bouteflika has wrested the reins of power from the grip of the military, he has seemingly monopolized it for himself. It is not just that power is heavily concentrated in one office, the presidency, but that it is centered in a single person.  (…)

Who would replace Bouteflika should he die? As with his role model, Boumedienne, who expired abruptly in 1978, the void would likely be filled by the only institution in Algeria that has the resources and capacity to assert effective control nationwide: the military. After all, the omnipotent Boumedienne was followed by Chadli Bendjedid, often mocked as a lackey of the army. The irony of Bouteflika’s triumph — the civilianization of the regime — is that it has come at the expense of a sound foundation for civilian-led politics in the future.

Precisely. Now Bouteflikaism has nothing to fear but Bouteflikaism itself.

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