More than two years after the start of the popular Hirak, and more than a year and a half after the presidential elections, Algeria held its first legislative elections during Abdel Majid Tebboune’s presidency on 12 June 2021 to elect new representatives to the People’s National Assembly (the parliament’s lower chamber). The authorities had promoted these elections as the panacea for Algeria’s structural crises and the Hirak’s opportunity to integrate elected bodies. However, most elections previously organized by the ruling class have only aggravated the legitimacy crisis haunting the regime in Algeria, as each time they failed to fulfil their purpose: Hold the failed officials accountable and democratically renew the political class. In Algeria, elections are a tool to ensure “authoritarian resilience,” which allows the regime to cosmetically renew political institutions without the need to drastically reconsider the processes regulating them. So, what makes the June legislative elections any different, and what is the ensuing potential new political plan?
Failed reconstruction on top of political destruction
Parliament, as an institution, generally evokes negative reactions in the collective mind of Algerians, given that it has always been the product of elections marred by wide-scale fraud and quotas the regime sets based on purely clientelist criteria. The parliament has also always been a haven for corrupt businessmen and politicians seeking to benefit from parliamentary immunity or expand their influence and interests by reaching decision-making positions. This image became bleaker towards the end of Bouteflika’s presidency due to the blatant occupation of Parliament by corrupt businessmen and the promulgation of unpopular and dubious legislation to advance the interest of the class of corporate businessmen at the time, whose clout had grown in the final years of Bouteflika’s rule. It is not odd for the Algerian public to call their parliament al-shukara (“money vault,”) with reference to the corrupt money running deep in its corridors.
The image of the Algerian parliament is a natural reflection of the ruling class’s fragility and schisms - including forces labelled as “opposition” - as a result of years of ineffective and restricted political action. This is largely due to the regime’s preoccupation with security and the obsession with monitoring partisan action and civil society as a whole. Furthermore, the clientelist relationship between most political parties and the regime was also fuelled by the rentier Algerian economy.
Against all hopes, the regime of President Tebboune did not seek to restore a good image or the parliament. Such a step would require, in principle, suitable conditions for free and sound political practices, which would enable the rise of new political parties and election of representatives empowered to gradually move beyond the remnants of political destruction left behind by Bouteflika’s rule. On the contrary, Tebboune kept the same parliament for more than one and a half years, despite personally acknowledging that it lacked credibility and true representation. What is worse is that several sensitive pieces of legislation were passed by the same parliament, such as the amendments to the Penal Code in April 2020.
Before the June elections, the regime had failed on two vital occasions. First, the presidential elections were imposed on 12 December 2019 by the army, despite wide popular opposition, and had almost no element of surprise as all the candidates were affiliated with the same regime. Second, the referendum on the new 2020 constitution, which was the political cornerstone of Tebboune’s “new Algeria” project and his promises to drastically transform the work of institutions, was dealt a massive blow as a result of the wide public boycott. Moreover, the new constitution lacked any major amendments to the president’s broad powers and did not grant parliament any meaningful supervisory authority, contrary to Tebboune’s original promise.
Despite the clear message sent by the Algerian people, who largely refrained from taking part in these two electoral events, the authorities insisted on holding the legislative elections as planned and under the same conditions inherited from Bouteflika’s regime. As such, parliamentary elections were held in a troubled political context, with ongoing popular Hirak protests and Tebboune’s failure to create a political dynamic capable of absorbing popular discontent or implement any major economic reforms, as he had promised at the beginning of his term.
On the contrary, the current authorities’ policies increased political tensions and restored the situation to what it was before 22 February 2019, if not worse. This is due to the tightening of security measures, including tightening laws that restrict freedom such as banning marches in most cities, increasing arbitrary detentions and using the judiciary as an oppressive tool to discourage Algerians from protesting. Although the authorities invited Hirak activists to form organized political bodies, they ignored the licensing applications submitted by some activists to establish political parties. These increasing political tensions were compounded by a difficult socio-economic situation as a result of the drop in oil prices since mid-2014 and the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic.
All of these factors combined discouraged opposition parties from participating, fearing a popular boycott, on the one hand, and the loss of their remaining political legitimacy, on the other.
|List of Political Parties who Participated in the Legislative Elections of 12 June 2021 and those who Boycotted them
|Socialist Forces Front
Rally for Culture and Democracy
Democratic and Social Movement
Socialist Workers Party
Union for Change and Progress
|Unaffiliated lists (1,438 lists for independent candidates)
National Liberation Front
Movement of Society for Peace
Democratic National Rally
Jil Jadid (New Generation)
Good Governance Front
National Construction Movement
Freedom and Justice Party, Justice and Development Front, New Dawn Party, New Algeria Front, Dignity Party, Talaie El Houriyet, Renaissance Movement, National Republican Alliance, People’s Voice Party, Democratic and Social Movement, Party of Algerian Renewal, National Struggle Front, National Reform Movement, Youth Party, Algerian National Front, Algerian National Party, Movement of National Understanding, National Movement for Nature and Development, Al-Wassit Al-Siyassi (Political Mediation) Party
The Socialist Forces Front, the Workers’ Party and the Rally for Culture and Democracy are the three major parties who boycotted the elections (see the table above). Although some of these parties had previously boycotted elections, this is the first time they have all refrained from taking part in an electoral event of this scale. Regardless of the decreased presence of these parties in society and their mediocre results in previous elections, their participation would have given a degree of credibility to the recent elections, as these parties are the oldest political organizations belonging to the opposition, not to mention that they represent, to a certain extent, the democratic current in Algeria’s political party spectrum. Moreover, these parties supported the popular Hirak, albeit to varying degrees. As such, the fact that they boycotted the elections represented a symbolic blow to President Tebboune’s political agenda, as the elections lacked any competition. None of the political parties that took part in the elections belongs to the opposition, a fact which reflects negatively on the new parliament.
The only winner: The boycott
The results of the recent elections were by no means surprising. According to the official figures, the National Liberation Front won 98 parliamentary seats out of a total of 407. Independent candidates in unaffiliated lists came in second place with 84 seats, followed by the Islamic Movement of Society for Peace (68 seats) and the Democratic National Rally (58 seats), while the remaining seats were split between ten other parties.
Initial analysis of the election results indicates that the two traditional parties (the National Liberation Front and the Democratic National Rally) still have constituencies that vote consistently for them, although they won fewer seats than usual and were not able to secure a parliamentary majority, unlike in all previous elections. These constituencies mainly consist of public employees and employees of security agencies, not to mention the role of local and clan clientelism and the influence of traditional relationships on voters’ choices in inland cities and rural areas. As in previous elections, all of these factors played a decisive role in the victory of the National Liberation Front and the large number of seats won by the Democratic National Rally. Despite the popular discontent with these two parties since 22 February 2019, due to their active participation in the agenda of Bouteflika’s fifth term and the involvement of many of their leaders in corruption cases, their constituencies were not significantly harmed.
In addition, the results of these elections legitimize the increasing demands of the popular Hirak to dissolve the National Liberation Front, or at least to change its name and keep the original name as a common national heritage. This demand is supported by protesters as well as a large spectrum of the political class. Such a move could transform this “apparatus” into a political party like any other by stripping it of its political and material privileges, which have always given it an advantage over other parties. However, by not taking this step, the regime - or at least part of it - appears to still need this functional party, which undermines the credibility of any elections, even before they start.
Mostly, however, the true power of these two parties and their reach within society cannot be properly measured, due to the lack of competitiveness and the large-scale boycott. This also applies to other parties that took part in the elections.
In fact, what is more important than the results achieved by parties is the popular boycott of the elections. Even if this scenario was anticipated, voters’ turnout was unusually low, averaging 23%. The Kabylia region, as always, completely boycotted these elections. The government’s bet on independent candidates failed, although it supported many unaffiliated lists and even provided financial aid to young candidates. The government believed that the thousands of young independent candidates who ran for the elections, as well as those affiliated with civil society organizations, would increase voter turnout, given their activism in neighbourhoods and their ability to encourage young people to vote. The results have, however clearly shown that the popular boycott was much larger than expected.
Although the official discourse – including statements by the president himself – underestimates the importance of voter turnout, this cannot be taken seriously due to the overall context of the elections, given these are the first parliamentary elections since the start of the popular Hirak and the movement’s influence cannot be denied. The elections are also a cornerstone in the “new Algeria” project the regime promoted as a new foundational state, especially after the 2020 constitutional referendum failed to secure an acceptable level of popular participation.
The initial review of these elections does not indicate any large-scale fraud, although some cases were detected, which altered the initial results. However, this review does not necessarily mean that the electoral process was fair and with clear rules, as the fraud took place before the elections were held using non-traditional means. This distorts the entire electoral process and allows the government to avoid using explicit traditional means. For example, security threats against candidates are still widely used, which enables the government to exclude unwanted candidates based on security reports by intelligence agencies and the vague articles of the new electoral law. This shows that the regime still controls society through security and that the security apparatus of the army still interferes in political life, although President Tebboune has repeatedly denied it. Moreover, the government banned any discourse contradicting the regime’s roadmap from being showcased on official media outlets and resorted instead to propaganda, a strategy that has since backfired. Similarly, the government forced most private media outlets to adopt the same approach by threatening to block them from benefitting from public advertisements, which are one of their main sources of income.
Parliament without opposition: Which potential political roadmap?
In light of the election results, President Tebboune found it perfectly normal to form a parliamentary majority loyal to him, as the National Liberation Front, the Democratic National Rally, the National Construction Movement, and the independent MPs bloc all issued statements in support of the president’s agenda, although it lacks any clear guidelines. These parties expressed their willingness to form a parliamentary bloc in support of the president, although Tebboune ran as an independent candidate in the 2019 presidential elections and announced time and again that he was the civil society candidate.
This comfortable parliamentary majority encouraged the president to avoid the need to appoint a head of government. Instead, as expected, he appointed a prime minister with limited powers. The president had to take into account, even if partially, the results of the elections when selecting the new cabinet, which meant that he had to appoint ministers affiliated with the political parties that form the parliamentary majority loyal to him. However, Tebboune only granted these parties non-sensitive ministries; only nine ministries out of 34 were given to the parties that won in the elections. The remaining sensitive ministries were given to bureaucrats from the regime itself. This decision could be in part due to the government’s fear of reproducing the old political model detested by the people. If the cabinet were to mostly comprise ministers affiliated with the National Liberation Front, the Democratic National Rally, and the Islamists, this would have meant the concrete return of a Bouteflika-style parliament.
Given that President Tebboune enjoys a comfortable parliamentary majority, the government was not worried about the exclusion of Islamists from power. The divisions in the Muslim Brotherhood Islamic school of thought - which normally takes part in the cabinet - allowed the government to choose between the Movement of Society for Peace and the National Construction Movement. But in reality, the latter is identical to the former, having emerged following political internal schisms. The government decided to include the National Construction Movement in the cabinet, especially as it expressed its willingness to be active and to support President Tebboune’s agenda even before the elections were held. The president of the Movement, Abdelkader Bengrina, also assisted the regime by running in the 2019 presidential elections, while the Movement of Society for Peace boycotted the elections. Coupled, these factors make the National Construction Movement the preferred and safer choice to undertake the role previously played by the Movement of Society for Peace. Meanwhile, the latter refused to participate, stating that the political offer it received to join the cabinet was inadequate and that it was not willing to play a secondary role, as it had done in the “presidential alliance” in which it took part under Bouteflika. Its president eventually announced that the Movement would not join the bloc loyal to the president.
Given the final cabinet composition, consisting mainly of technocrats, the offer made to the Movement of Society for Peace could indeed have been “inadequate,” but another possible analysis is that the government was implicitly trying to encourage the Movement to play the role of the opposition in parliament. Even though the regime’s grip on parliament is strong, it would be embarrassing to have no parliamentary opposition, even as a mere formality. By having the Islamists play this role, the government would give the impression that the parliament had a competitive dynamic.
Regardless of the choices made by Tebboune when forming his cabinet, the recent legislative elections are yet another missed opportunity that has further fuelled rather than dispel doubts over Algeria’s future. The government can boast about organizing the elections, respecting its legal timeframes and succeeding in this legal-technical undertaking; however, it cannot hide the elections fiasco from a political perspective. These elections will likely reproduce the same political map as that pre-22 February 2019, and they are likely to exacerbate the crisis in political legitimacy that faces President Tebboune’s regime, which is trying to rebuild Bouteflika’s catastrophic political legacy, rather than demolish it and build anew. The paradox of holding elections with low voter turnout under an authoritarian rule is that “the more the general public feels that elections are pointless, the less effective shell institutions are as tools for governance.”
With the failure of the project to rebuild political institutions and give them an acceptable degree of popularity, President Tebboune’s role as the civil facade of the regime carries substantial risks. This failure could further expose the political role of the army, which is the heart of the regime, at a time when the army is in dire need of a civil facade that is more solid and more capable of absorbing the popular Hirak and its repercussions. The Hirak has shown that there is a real social dynamic that is aware of the military’s negative role in the political sphere, and it is demanding a renegotiation of the social contract that has been in place since independence.
The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.