Algeria: Political Parties in
ALGERIA: POLITICAL PARTIES IN
Political parties have been an integral part of Algerian politics since the days of French colonial rule.
Until 1945, Algerian political parties included the Parti Social Français (PSF) and Parti Populaire Français (PPF), representing segments of the European settler population; the Parti Communiste Algérien (PCA), integrating educated Muslims, Jews, and Europeans; and the Reformist Ulama Movement, the Etoile Nord-Africaine (ENA), the Parti du Peuple Algérien (PPA) and the Mouvement pour le Triomphe des Libertés Démocratiques (MTLD), representing the parties and associations of Algerian nationalism.
When the Algerian War of Independence commenced in November 1954, one major movement-party, the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), became dominant. It incorporated under its wings nationalist movements and leaders of different generations; it even developed its own liberation army—the Armée de Libération Nationale (ALN). Only one movement sought to challenge, albeit with little success, the nationalistic monopoly of the (FLN). It was the Mouvement Nationale Algérien (MNA), led by the veteran nationalist Messali al-Hadj.
The FLN as Ruling Party and the Absence of Real Political Opposition
Upon independence, Algeria became a republic under President Ahmed Ben Bella, a key figure within the FLN. Under the first constitution (1963) the FLN regime eliminated all political competition that posed a danger to its rule. Dissident forces led by former FLN revolutionaries, among them Mohamed Boudiaf's Parti de la Révolution Socialiste (PRS), Belkacem Krim's Mouvement Démocratique de Renouveau Algérien (Democratic Movement for Algerian Renewal—MDRA), and Hocine Ait Ahmed's Front des Forces Socialistes (Front of Socialist Forces—FFS), were either outlawed or neutralized by the FLN regime, and several of their leaders were exiled or assassinated. The parties that were tolerated, yet not officially recognized, could not participate in free elections, and served as mere adjuncts to the government. The justification given for the political monopoly of the FLN under Ben Bella was that it had obtained a national mandate as a "front" and, therefore, all groups needed to function as adjuncts to the FLN-dominated regime.
Because the FLN had been mandated as a "front," trade unions, women's groups, and civil associations came under FLN control and enjoyed scant autonomy. These included the FLN-formed Union Nationale des Etudiants Algériens (National Union of Algerian Students—UNEA) and the Union Générale des Travailleurs Algériens (General Union of Algerian Workers—UGTA). The UNEA was quite active throughout the 1960s despite government attempts to quell the movement. Strikes, boycotts, and other violent clashes between student groups and government officials continued to upset numerous university campuses until the UNEA was suppressed and dissolved in 1971. The student movement was subsequently integrated into the National Union of Algerian Youth (Union Nationale de la Jeunesse Algérienne—UNJA), a national conglomerate of youth organizations guided by the FLN.
The Algerian women's movement, which became institutionalized within the FLN's Union Nationale des Femmes Algériennes (National Union of Algerian Women—UNFA), subordinate to the FLN, had made few inroads since independence. Those who played a significant part in the War of Independence were relegated to marginal public roles. The only significant breakthrough for the women's movement was the Khemisti Law of 1963, which raised the minimum age of marriage. Although girls were still expected to marry earlier than boys, the minimum age was raised to sixteen for girls and eighteen for boys. This change facilitated women's pursuance of advanced education, but it fell short of the age-nineteen minimum specified in the original proposal.
Although the FLN was buttressed by the military and monopolized Algeria's public life under the presidencies of Ahmed Ben Bella (1962–1965), Houari Boumédienne (1965–1978), and Chadli Bendjedid (1978–1991), it lacked mass appeal. The central FLN leadership gradually lost touch with its regional branches and failed to mobilize the masses to endorse its domestic programs. The party's "self-management" socialist economy under Ben Bella, which intended to involve agricultural and industrial workers in the operation of state companies, soon gave way to an unpopular centralized socialist economy imposed from above. As the party branches on the local level became dormant, and bureaucratic inefficiency permeated the system, the FLN declined in popularity and was no longer regarded as a "front," as its name suggested.
By the 1980s, Algeria's economic polarization was such that 5 percent of the population earned 45 percent of the national income, and 50 percent earned less than 22 percent of the national income. Members of the party elite enjoyed privileged access to foreign capital and goods, were ensured positions in the helm of state-owned enterprises, and benefited from corrupt management of state-controlled goods and services. The masses, on the other hand, suffered from the increasing unemployment and inflation resulting from government reforms and economic austerity in the mid- to late 1980s. The riots of October 1988 indicated that the FLN had completely lost legitimacy in the eyes of the people.
Toward Reform: The Road to Free Elections and a Multiparty System
A new constitution in 1976 that was subsequently amended in 1979 was to sanction the proliferation of political parties and facilitate free elections. Yet, the articles referring to this matter were vague and, well into the 1980s, no real progress was made to enforce this policy. It was only under the new constitution of 23 February 1989—modified in 1996—that changes finally could be implemented. These came in the wake of large-scale riots in October 1988 protesting food shortages. President Bendjedid and the FLN were pressured to surrender their monopoly on power and institute democratic reforms. During the riots, thousands of young protestors were wounded and at least 100 were killed.
According to the constitutional reforms, Algeria had universal suffrage. Unlike in past years, the president of the Algerian Republic would be elected as the head of state to a five-year term, renewable once. He would become the head of the Council of Ministers and of the High Security Council. He would appoint the prime minister, who also would serve as the head of government. The prime minister was to appoint the Council of Ministers. The Algerian parliament became bicameral, consisting of a lower chamber, the National People's Assembly with 380 members, and an upper chamber, the Council of Nation, with 144 members. The Council of Nation would thereafter be elected every five years. Regional and municipal authorities were to elect two-thirds of the Council of Nation; the president would appoint the rest. The Council of Nation members were to serve a six-year term with one-half of the seats up for election or reappointment every three years. As had been the case throughout much of Algeria's recent history, and not part of the new reforms, the country is divided into forty-eight wilayas (states or provinces) headed by walis (governors) who report to the minister of the interior. Each wilaya is further divided into communes. The wilayas and communes are each governed by an elected assembly.
Chadli Bendjedid's decision to engage in constitutional reform signaled the downfall of the FLN. The 1989 constitution not only eliminated the FLN's monopoly but also abolished all references to the FLN's unique posture as party of the avant-garde. The new constitution recognized the FLN's historical role, but the FLN was obliged to compete as any other political party. By mid-1989 the military had recognized the imminent divestiture of the FLN and had begun to distance itself from the party. The resignation of several senior army officers from party membership in March 1989, generally interpreted as a protest against the constitutional revisions, also reflected a strategic maneuver to preserve
the military establishment's integrity as guardian of the revolution. In July 1991 Bendjedid himself resigned from the party leadership.
The legalization of political parties, further enunciated in the Law Relative to Political Associations of July 1989, was one of the major achievements of the revised constitution. More than thirty political parties emerged as a result of these reforms by the time of the first multiparty local and regional elections in June 1990; nearly sixty existed by the time of the first national multiparty elections in December 1991.
The Turning Point—Political Parties and Elections: 1990–2002
On 12 June 1990 the country's first free municipal elections took place. Chief among the numerous political parties contending for power were the ruling FLN; the Islamist fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut—FIS), founded in 1989 and led by Abassi al-Madani and Ali Belhadj; Hocine Ait Ahmed's pro-Berber Front of Socialist Forces (Front des Forces Socialistes—FFS); and another pro-Berber party—the Rally for Culture and Democracy (Rassemblement pour la Culture et la Démocratie—RCD). The results were stunning: The FIS won a majority of the municipal seats in the country's four largest cities—Algiers, Oran, Constantine, and Annaba—as well as 65 percent of the popular vote and 55 percent of 15,000 municipal posts throughout Algeria. It won representation in 32 of the 48 provinces.
Support for FIS was part of the growing admiration in the Arab-Muslim world for Islamic fundamentalist leaders in the wake of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the parliamentary victory achieved in 1989 by the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan. Many of the voters used their votes to protest against low salaries, spiraling inflation, and limited economic choices for young people under the FLN regime. In fact, the vote for the fundamentalist party was not so much massive support for FIS as a reaction against the FLN's record of authoritarian rule and economic mismanagement and corruption.
Its electoral successes notwithstanding, FIS was somewhat vague from the outset about its objectives. It is known, however, that Madani struck an alliance with local merchants and espoused a free market economy in lieu of the FLN's state socialism. Both Madani and Belhadj described a woman's primary role as rearing a family, and limited women to such jobs as nursing and teaching. The local and provincial municipal councils, which serve five-year terms, have jurisdiction over such matters as renewal of liquor licenses, the type of activities allowed at cultural centers, and the issuance of permits to build mosques. Madani and Belhadj vehemently opposed public drinking, any form of dancing, and secular programming in the media.
At the time, in addition to the many secular parties that were newly created or had been revived after years of virtual clandestine existence, there also emerged Islamist parties who competed with the FIS. Among them two are noteworthy: the Mouvement de la Société pour la Paix (Society for Peace—MSP), also known at one time as Harakat al-Mujtama al-Islamiyya, or Hamas); and the Mouvement de la Réforme Nationale (Movement for National Reform—MRN). Both parties were moderate vis-à-vis central government control, sought to take part in the ruling cabinet, and opted for a gradual Islamization of society through religious education. The MSP and MRN shunned violence, unlike the FIS, which in the early 1990s developed the Islamic Salvation Army (Armée Islamique du Salut—AIS), a paramilitary force to struggle against the authorities.
The backing for FIS in 1990 and subsequently came primarily from the Arab population, which constituted at least 70 percent of the total Algerian Sunni Muslim population of approximately 28 million. The Berber Muslims, as well as the ethnically mixed Arab-Berber population, were prone to support secular parties, including the Berber parties, especially the FFS and RCD. Both the FLN and the FIS were challenged in the June 1990 elections by the Kabyles, members of the largest, most important Berber group. The Berbers demanded then, as they still do, greater political freedom and the ability to expand their cultural heritage. The RCD is especially stubborn about the need to augment the influence of their Tamazight Berber dialect. Besides the FIS, the other major beneficiaries of the 1990 elections were the FFS and RCD. The latter gained 8 percent of the municipal vote.
The gains made by Islamist and Berber parties prompted these forces to pressure the authorities to call for general parliamentary elections, which were scheduled for 27 June 1991. The elections did not take place, however. Fearing an Islamist victory, the army declared martial law and arrested, on 30 June 1991, the top FIS leadership, including Madani and Belhadj.
Under relentless pressure from all political parties, the government rescheduled new parliamentary elections for December 1991, with second-round runoffs planned for January 1992. These elections were to provide a serious national test for the new multiparty system; they were open to all registered parties. Voting was by universal suffrage and secret ballots, and assembly seats were awarded based on a proportional representation system. Only 231 of the 430 seats were decided in the first round of elections, in which 59 percent of eligible voters participated, but a FIS victory seemed assured by the Islamist command of 80 percent of the contested seats. The second round of elections never took place following the coup d' état on 11 January 1992 because the military canceled them to avert a sweeping Islamist victory. The coup also marked a temporary end to FLN rule, and led to the resignation of President Bendjedid. From this point until the parliamentary elections of 1997, Algeria was guided by a five-member High State Council, which was backed and manipulated by the military.
The canceling of the second round of elections, coupled with political uncertainty and economic turmoil, led to a violent reaction on the part of FIS adherents and other Islamists. These elements organized themselves into the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS), the more extreme Armed Islamic Group (GIA), and a faction that seceded from it—the Salafist Group for Islamist Preaching. A campaign of assassinations, bombings, and massacres gained unprecedented strength. The High State Council officially dissolved and outlawed the FIS in 1992 and began a series of arrests and trials of FIS members that reportedly resulted in over 50,000 members being jailed. Despite efforts to restore the political process, violence and terrorism rocked Algeria throughout much of the 1990s and the early years of the twenty-first century. As many as 100,000 Algerians died as a result.
In November 1995 presidential elections took place despite the objection of some political parties to holding elections that excluded the FIS. Liamine Zeroual, who also headed the High State Council, was elected president by 75 percent of the vote. In an attempt to bring political stability to the nation, the Rassemblement Nationale Démocratique (National Democratic Rally—RND) was formed soon thereafter as the regime's new ruling party by Zeroual and a progressive group of FLN members. It was meant to constitute Algeria's major secular party alongside the declining FLN. Zeroual announced that presidential elections would be held in early 1999, nearly two years ahead of the scheduled time. In April 1999 the Algerian people elected Abdelaziz Bouteflika president with an official count of 70 percent of all votes cast. Bouteflika was the only presidential candidate that enjoyed the backing of the FLN and RND. His inauguration for a five-year term took place on 27 April 1999.
President Bouteflika's agenda focused initially on restoring security and stability to the country. Following his inauguration, he proposed an official amnesty for those who had fought against the government during the 1990s unless they had engaged in "blood crimes," such as rape or murder. This "Civil Concord" policy was widely approved in a nationwide referendum in September 2000. Government officials estimate that 85 percent of those fighting the regime during the 1990s, except for members of the GIA and the Salafists, accepted the amnesty offer and have been reintegrated into Algerian society. Bouteflika also launched national commissions to study educational and judicial reform, and to restructure the state bureaucracy. His government has set ambitious targets for economic reform and attracting foreign investors.
In the 2002 parliamentary elections the tables turned in favor of the FLN, which won a majority of 199 seats in the 389-body parliament; the RND suffered a devastating defeat, with its representation reduced to 47 seats. The Islamist MRN and MSP won 43 and 38 seats, respectively. The FFS and the RCD had called for a boycott of the vote because they expected fraud and because of strained relations at the time between Berber leaders and the regime. With an absolute majority in the legislature and the support of the RND and the moderate Islamists, the FLN has an opportunity to push forward reforms, but the party and President Bouteflika face resistance from the army—the real power holders who often oppose genuine reforms.
see also algerian war of independence; armÉe de libÉration nationale (aln); belhadj, ali; ben bella, ahmed; bendjedid, chadli; boudiaf, mohamed; boumÉdienne, houari; front de libÉration nationale (fln); front islamique du salut (fis); gia (armed islamic groups); hadj, messali al-; hamas; high state council (algeria); islamic salvation army (ais); madani, abassi al-; mouvement national algÉrien; mouvement pour le triomphe des libertÉs dÉmocratiques; parti du peuple algÉrien (ppa); rassemblement national dÉmocratique (rnd); rassemblement pour la culture et la dÉmocratie (rcd); zeroual, liamine.
Global Security.org. "Algerian Insurgency." Available from <http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/war/algeria-90s.htm>.
Kapil, Arun. "Algeria's Elections Show Islamist Strength." Middle East Report (September–October 1990): 31–36.
Laskier, Michael M. "Algeria Holds its First Free Multi-party Elections." In Great Events from History II: Human Rights Series, edited by Frank N. Magill. Pasadena, CA, and Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, 1992.
Michael M. Laskier
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