Algeria after the re-election of Abdelaziz Bouteflika

Algeria after the re-election of Abdelaziz Bouteflika


On April 8, 2004, Abdelaziz Bouteflika was re-elected president of Algeria in the first round, with 84.9% of votes cast.


Abdelaziz Bouteflika was re-elected president of the Republic of Algeria in the first round of presidential elections held on April 8, 2004. Repeated declarations of neutrality by the armed forces, as well as the willingness expressed by the Chief of the General Staff, Mohamed Lamari, to accept the victory of any candidate –including the leader of the Islah Islamist party, Abdallah Jabala– led international observers to take greater interest in these elections. On this occasion, unlike during the presidential elections of 1999, the other candidates did not withdraw, which helped make the elections appear relatively open and competitive. The weight of the armed forces in Algerian politics remains a decisive factor in any analysis of Algerian political and economic life. Bouteflika’s victory strengthens his position in the political system, though the unexpected magnitude of his win undermines the credibility of elections that were meant to give the world the impression that a democratizing process is underway after more than a decade of civil war –with the post-9/11 international context of the war against terrorism as a backdrop–.


Abdelaziz Bouteflika, minister of Foreign Affairs from 1963 to 1978 and a key player in establishing Algeria’s international prestige in the 1970s, had not taken part in Algerian domestic politics since the armed forces distanced him from the succession of Huari Bumedián in 1978, forcing him into exile. In the early 1990s, Bouteflika kept away from public life and in 1994 even refused the army’s offer for him to pilot the political institutionalization process after the coup in 1992. As General Jaled Nezzar comments in his memoirs, Bouteflika was able to become President of the Republic in 1999 thanks to strong support from part of the military hierarchy which, after forcing the resignation of General Liamin Zerual, decided to withdraw the army from the forefront of the political scene and bring Bouteflika back. Their goal was to improve the regime’s image abroad and to reduce the risk of an internationalization of the Algerian civil conflict, which had worsened in the months before as several missions of international observers and a UN delegation arrived to gather on-site information on the causes of the violence that was shaking the country. Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s position as the new President of the Republic was weakened by the fact that the other candidates boycotted the electoral process, which they considered fraudulent. His main goal since then has been to enhance his own legitimacy to strengthen his position in the system and enable him to increase the presidentialist bent of the 1996 Constitution, increasing his independence from the decision-makers in the military and from the political parties that supported them. In parliament, Bouteflika built a heterogeneous presidential majority made up of two parties close to the government –the FLN and the RND–, a tame Islamist party –the MSP– and a Berber party –the RCD–, which favoured separating church from state and distancing Islamism from public life. The latter party abandoned the government coalition after the Berber revolt broke out in Cabilia in April 2001.

During his first mandate, the quest for independence was one of the cornerstones of President Bouteflika’s very personal presidential style, leading him to break taboos such as the public use of the French language, celebrating the new millennium according to the Gregorian calendar, promoting Saint Augustine’s Algerian origins and the role played by the Jewish community in preserving Algeria’s cultural heritage. After a decade of rhetoric focused on eradicating Islamism, Bouteflika made national reconciliation the leit motif of his electoral programme in the 1999 elections, enabling him to connect with the hopes of broad sectors of the Algerian population to re-establish peace and security in the country after a long civil war that had caused more than 100,000 deaths. In this context, the law on ‘National Harmony’ was passed by 96.3% of the votes after a plebiscite held in September 1999 which posed the following question: ‘Are you in favour or against the initiative of the President of the Republic aimed at achieving peace and civil harmony?’. This question directly linked the figure of the president with peace and reconciliation. His decision to combine repression with an olive branch led 6,000 AIS fighters (the armed branch of the FIS) to lay down their arms and helped bring about a considerable improvement in the state of security in Algeria in recent years, especially in urban areas. These results were one of Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s main political assets going into the presidential elections in 2004. According to independent estimates, there were around 140 killings in the first quarter of 2004.

Algeria’s return to international affairs after a decade of domestic strife and international pressure for not respecting human rights was Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s second objective and he hoped to find support abroad that would strengthen his political position at home. The emphasis on national reconciliation and civil peace enabled Bouteflika to offset the negative image the regime had acquired through its repression of Islamism, rescuing Algeria from the ‘moral embargo’ to which it was subjected after the accusations made by several NGOs regarding the involvement of the security forces in mass violations of human rights. The 35th AOU summit, held in Algiers in June 1999, and the president’s visits to the United States and France, marked the beginning of Algeria’s return to the international scene, led by Bouteflika. The 9/11 attacks in 2001 gave the regime a shot in the arm, allowing it to portray the Algerian civil war not as the result of an interruption of the electoral process in 1991, but rather as an early, large-scale conflict in the war on terrorism. The military top brass used this new context to try to clean up their image, strengthening ties with the United States in the framework of NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue, which Algeria had taken part in since 1999, as well as in the struggle against international terrorism. This was the context in which an international conference on terrorism was held in Algiers in October 2002. The new international situation led to less criticism from the international community about the way the regime had handled the fight against radical Islamism. An example of this change of perception was the turnabout in Spanish diplomacy, which abandoned former misgivings regarding human rights and worked for the signing of a Friendship and Good Neighbour Treaty with Algeria, similar to those signed with Morocco and Tunisia –this against the backdrop of a bilateral crisis between Madrid and Rabat–. The process of bringing Algeria back onto the international stage has accelerated in recent years with the signing of an Association Agreement with the European Union, the Algerian president’s participation in the G-8 meeting held in Evian, the country’s new status as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, the strengthening of its relations with NATO and the start of negotiations to join the World Trade Organization.

The return to the world stage did not, however, lead to greater capacity to attract foreign investment that would generate employment. The only results of Algeria’s opening to foreign capital have been one big privatization –that of the El-Hadjar steelworks in the east of the country– and the sale of the first mobile telephone licence to the Egyptian group Orascom. The project to open the hydrocarbons sector to foreign investment, promoted by the Bouteflika government and followed with great interest by the big international oil companies, met with firm resistance from the UGTA trade union and was rejected by the most nationalist sectors of the population and part of the armed forces, which considered the plan an unacceptable launch pad for privatizing the Sonatrach group, the real engine of the Algerian economy, which obtains 96% of its income from oil and gas exports. The price of oil and natural gas has enabled the Bouteflika governments to rebalance public accounts, reducing foreign debt after the tough Structural Adjustment Plan applied in compliance with International Monetary Fund guidelines from 1994 to 1998. This economic bonanza has not been accompanied by less social chaos: after a decade of continuous violence, a quarter of the population remains below the poverty line, the official unemployment rate stands at around 30% and the informal economy absorbs 50% of private sector employment.

The Cabilia revolt has certainly been the biggest crisis that Bouteflika has had to face. Sparked in April 2001 by the death of a youth in the Beni Duala police station, it was answered by harsh repression and 120 deaths in a mountainous region which, since independence, has demanded that its Berber identity be recognized. Although the Algerian government tried to present it as based exclusively on linguistic and cultural specificities, the Cabilia revolt had social origins involving unemployment and the lack of prospects for the younger members of the population. The structure of this citizen movement was based on the ancestral community-based organization of the Cabilian tribes –the Aaruch–. This confirmed the failure of the traditional political elites in the region –embedded in the Berberist political parties such as the Ait Ahmed’s FFS and Said Sadi’s RCD– to express the social and cultural demands of the people. The trickle of concessions, including giving Tamazight the status of a national –but not official– language, has not restored calm in a region that continues to be occupied by the national gendarmerie and still suffers from deep social discontent, reflected in widespread support for calls to boycott the latest legislative and municipal elections.

The Presidential Elections of April 2004
Relations between Abdelaziz Bouteflika and the high-ranking military have not been easy since he was elected in 1999. The new president’s criticism of the interruption of the 1991 elections, his flexibility in applying the reinsertion policy to Islamists, his attempts to involve the army in the repression of the Cabilia revolt in April 2001 –considered by the military top brass to be the result of Bouteflika’s own policies– and his attempts to change the Constitution, have all led to mistrust in the hawkish sector of the armed forces. The army instigated a campaign to prevent him from continuing to lead the country, encouraging the aspirations of Ali Benflis (prime minister and secretary general of the FLN, the main party in the presidential majority) to become president of the republic. Bouteflika responded in September 2003 by creating a commission in charge of investigating the fate of persons who disappeared during the repression of Islamists –at a time when some generals were becoming increasingly worried after legal proceedings began in France against Jaled Nezzar, at the behest of the family of a dead Islamist–.

Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s decision to stand for re-election broke the internal consensus in the military high command, which chose to distance itself from the electoral process and not officially support any candidate. The army’s proclaimed neutrality did not prevent the process being controlled before the election campaign even got underway, but did help feed hopes that these would be open elections in which the results would not be decided beforehand. The Constitutional Council made the first sift by rejecting the candidacies of former prime minister Sid Ahmed Ghozali and more importantly, of the leader of the unofficial al-Wafa wa al-Adl party, Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi, who was unable to gather the 75,000 signatures needed to run for the presidency of the republic. More believable than this technical argument (applied to a candidate who had previously demonstrated his electoral power by obtaining a total of 1,200,000 votes in the first round of the 1999 presidential elections) was that this former FLN leader and former Foreign Affairs minister in the Chadli Benyedid era inspired fear and was considered capable of bringing together both the FIS Islamist vote and part of the FLN’s conservative nationalist vote. The Constitutional Council’s restrictive decisions and a questionable revision of the electoral lists were offset by the law on electoral reform that eliminated the obligation imposed on military personnel to vote at their barracks, gave the different candidates access to the mass media during the three-week election campaign and authorized the presence of scrutineers for the various candidates at polling stations and during the counting of ballots. The presence of international observers throughout the process was also authorized.

The fact that there were six candidates representing the Algerian social and political spectrum added flavour to an election campaign that nevertheless ended up polarized between Abdelaziz Bouteflika and his former prime minister, Ali Benflis. Bouteflika had made a break with Benflis when the latter announced his decision to run in the presidential elections, splitting the FLN into supporters of each of the two leaders. An Islamist, Abdallah Jabala, leader of the Islah party, also took part in the elections, as did Berberist leader Saad Sadi, general secretary of the RCD; a woman, Luisa Hanun, leader of the Trotskyite Workers’ Party; and a political unknown, Ali Fawzi Rebain, leader of the nationalist Ahd 54 party.

The elections were held on April 8, with a voter participation rate of 58.01%, two percentage points less than in the presidential elections of 1999. The rate for Cabilia was only 17%. More than Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s victory, the surprising thing was the magnitude of his win in the first round, with 84.9% of the vote. All together, the rest of the candidates did not receive even 15% of the votes cast (Benflis 6.4%, Jaballah 5%, Said Saadi 1.9%, Luisa Hanun 1% and Ali Fawzi Rebain 0.63%), which led to complaints of mass fraud by Ali Benflis and Said Sadi. However, these claims were rejected by the approximately one hundred international observers, among them a delegation of the European Parliament which was satisfied that the election process met European standards. The transparency of the process was also backed by the US State Department and the French president, who only a week after the elections went to Algiers to congratulate and give his support to President Bouteflika, proposing the signing of a Friendship and Cooperation Treaty similar to the one between Paris and Berlin, as a continuation of the Joint Declaration that both presidents had signed in Algiers during Chirac’s first visit in March 2003.

Bouteflika’s frank, populist message received wide media coverage, reached all corners of the country and received all the financing necessary. This, combined with his control of the mechanisms of state administration and public television were apparently decisive factors in the size of his victory at the polls. Fierce attacks on him by the independent press and by a satellite network broadcasting from London helped give the impression that the president was the victim of political and media lynching. In the end, this was to his advantage. On the road to re-election, Bouteflika also secured the support of the parties that made up the presidential majority –Ahmed Ouyahia’s RND, the wing of the FLN headed by Abdelaziz Beljadem and Buguerra Soltani’s Islamist MSP, which only at the very last moment gave up its initial plan to run in the elections, thus reaffirming its support of Bouteflika–. The Algerian president also secured the support of the powerful UGTA trade union, while courting the Islamist vote. The emphasis his campaign placed on ‘national reconciliation’ as the culmination of the ‘civil harmony’ policy, enabled him to attract part of the electorate that traditionally voted for the FIS. Gestures such as freeing historic FIS leaders Abbasi Madani and Ali Belhay undoubtedly led certain well-known FIS leaders such as Rabih Kabir, head of the FIS abroad, to call for votes for Bouteflika. The former head of the AIS, Madani Merzag, did the same, which enhanced the president’s image as a peacemaker.

A study of the election results shows that Bouteflika has a solid base of support throughout the entire country. He won in almost every wilaya, receiving nearly 90% of the vote in the regions most affected by the violence. Even in Cabilia, where the elections were boycotted by Ait Ahmed’s FFS and the Aaruchs, he managed to beat Buira and Bejaia. Said Sadi, leader of the RCD, the only Berberist party that had not boycotted the process, only won in Tizi Ouzu with 32.8 % of the vote, followed very closely by Ali Benflis with 31%, who managed to win only in Mila, confirming that he lacked a real base of support at the polls.


The magnitude of his victory strengthens Bouteflika’s position in the system, giving the impression that he was elected against the will of the military brass. However, the possibility cannot be ruled out that a prior agreement might have been reached with the military high command, which had finally decided not to set up obstacles to Bouteflika’s candidacy, which throughout the race had the decisive support of the state apparatus controlled by the government. The cost to the country’s image if the army were to intervene again in the political process at a time when the priority of the military high command, seduced by the Turkish model, is to tighten ties with NATO, along with the need of guarantees to protect it from the excesses it committed during the dirty war of the 1990s might have influenced a compromise that, ultimately, strengthens Bouteflika’s position.

Since his re-election, Abdelaziz Bouteflika has opted for continuity, keeping Ahmed Ouyahia on as prime minister, along with most of the ministers of the previous government. Bouteflika’s victory reflects his ability to mobilize broad sectors of society with his populism and his image as an independent leader able to guarantee national reconciliation. For this to happen, it will be necessary to increase freedoms, reabsorb patriotic militias into civilian life after a decade of social militarization and lift the state of emergency imposed in February 1992. These issues, along with work on the dossier of persons who disappeared during the dirty war and the reintegration of FIS leaders into active political life, will be an important test of the scope of Bouteflika’s reconciliation project and also of the army’s intention to progressively withdraw from the political arena as it aspires to become a strategic ally of NATO. The fight against social exclusion and poverty presents a major challenge to a president who cannot continue to delay a response to Cabilia’s cultural demands and economic development needs and who must meet his commitment to introduce economic reforms that affect the distribution of power and income and, as a result, how the system itself works. The reactivation of the project to partially liberalize the oil and gas sector will be another interesting test. The reform of the conservative Code of Personal Status, passed in 1984, is another of Bouteflika’s declared goals for this second mandate that will undoubtedly help improve Algeria’s image in the world.

On the diplomatic front, closer relations with the United States will mean not only US investment in the oil and gas sector, but also greater cooperation in the fight against terrorism, especially in the Sahel region, where groups such as the GSPC, linked to al-Qaeda, hide out and have training camps. The March 11 attacks have increased this cooperation: the Algerian chief of General Staff participated in the counter-terrorism summit organized by the United States at its military base in Stuttgart, which aimed to create a regional security alliance with the participation of Tunisia, Morocco, Chad, Niger, Senegal, Mauritania and Mali. Algeria has also increased its cooperation on security issues with most European countries, including Spain, where several cells of the GSPC have been broken up. Worries in Algiers regarding the victory of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero at the polls and his commitment to making relations with Morocco his top priority should not affect Spanish-Algerian relations, which have developed in a spectacular way in recent years. The bilateral energy issue –Algeria now supplies 15% of Spain’s needs and the national energy plan forecasts that this will rise to 30% in 2011 with the construction of a second gas pipeline– was complemented with a political commitment –the Friendship and Good Neighbour Treaty– that raised Algeria to the strategic partner level. Spanish diplomats will have to work to make their counterparts in the Maghreb aware that the strategic goal of the foreign policy of Spain and its European Union partners is political stability and economic development for the Maghreb as a whole. This means looking for a definitive solution to the Western Sahara issue in order to make headway with the process of regional integration in the Maghreb –a goal which Spain must actively pursue–.

Miguel Hernando de Larramendi
Professor at the Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha and researcher at the Taller de Estudios Internacionales Mediterráneos (TEIM)