Thursday, April 08, 2004

Algeria: election day (backgrounder)

Algerians are set to elect their president today.

There are six candidates ... great background on the candidates here ... (more info available in this earlier post).

The main drama of this election has been the rivalry between the incumbent, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, and the prime minister he fired, Ali Benflis. Both are members of the same party, the National Liberation Front (FNL) ... but the FNL is backing Benflis in this election (more on that here and here).

A brief recap of recent Algerian history -- In the 1991-92 general election, the hardline Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) appeared likely to win, prompting the military to step in and scrap the elections. This sparked a civil war that claimed some 150,000 lives in the years that followed.

Bouteflika's great achievment ... doing something about the bloodshed.
Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a former foreign minister, was elected president on April 15, 1999, with 73.9 percent of the vote. Favoured by the military, he was the only candidate after six others withdrew on the eve of polling day, citing massive fraud.

On September 16, 1999, Algerians endorsed Bouteflika's "Civilian Concord" in a referendum approved by 98.6 percent of voters. The pact sought to end the bloodshed through an amnesty in favour of nearly 6,000 Islamic rebels [who had not committed blood crimes or rape and] who agreed to lay down arms. Bouteflika says 10,000 have now done so. Violence has continued, although at a much lower level.
Though I can't seem to find it right now ... I remember reading a rather interesting analysis piece that argued that Bouteflika and Benflis appeal to the same demographic and will split the vote ... allowing the Islamist candidate, Abdallah Djaballah (El Islah party), to make significant gains.

Here is a piece on the Islamist vote in Algeria (from a few days back) ...
... everyone is courting the Islamic vote. No one knows how big this is but they say it is a crucial factor.

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has secured the backing of the smaller moderate Muslim party MSP.

El Islah came third in local elections in 2002. It has pushed through parliament laws forcing the army and security forces from voting in barracks and banning alcohol imports.

... A sign of changing times, a split has emerged within the traditional Islamic movement, with key members of the FIS supporting Djaballah or Bouteflika.

The Paris-based research institute IMMAR said in a poll published last month that 10 percent of voters would pick Djaballah, compared with 17 for former prime minister Ali Benflis and 55 percent for Bouteflika.

"But one must note that the usual underestimation of the Islamic voter means Djaballah could come second," IMMAR said.

There is so much that is interesting about this election ... I can't do it justice here. So I'll just point you to some interesting articles that will give your brain something to chew on ...

-- An Algerian Presidential Free-for-All
-- Rallying against the leader
-- Algeria Focus (March 2004 newsletter from Menas Associates, a consulting firm)
-- Q&A: Algeria's presidential election (good BG on how candidates are selected)
-- Chronology of standoff between Bouteflika and Benflis (goes to Oct. 3, 2003)


The military ....

The military has always been influential in the country. This time around, the military has said it's staying neutral. This analysis piece written by Peter Cross, a North Africa analyst with Middle East Tactical Studies, looks at the military's role/stand in some detail. A brief excerpt ...
But this [their claim of neutrality] sits uneasily with the open secret of President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika's execrable relations with the military chiefs who, having brought him to power in 1999, have for some time been suspected of wanting to replace him with a less mercurial and more malleable figurehead.

.... The threat of an Islamist takeover has been fought off, and the rising generations of officers are keen to get on with the "professionalization" of the armed forces. Against this background, [military chief-of-staff, Lieutenant General Mohamed] Lamari appears to be sincerely committed to the strategic objective of bringing the military back to the barracks and normalizing the relationship with the state's civilian wing.
And this take from the Financial Times ...
Although Mr Bouteflika has irritated top generals with his repeated attempts to concentrate more powers in the presidency, he has used his international connections to rehabilitate a country considered a pariah state not long ago and this has brought benefits to the army.

This leads many analysts to suspect that the military establishment is not opposed to his candidacy as much as it would like to ensure that he continues to negotiate his decisions with the generals.

"They like weak presidents," quips Redouane Boudjema, a journalist who also teaches at the University of Algiers.

Mr Benflis has vigorously opposed the president's government style and promised greater liberalisation. But he was Mr Bouteflika's key aide and prime minister and is seen as a leader who would still be in the clutches of the Algerian army.

The following are some tid bits that I found interesting ...

Algeria has an incredibly young population. Of the country's 32 million people, over 70% are under 30 ... and of that number, an estimated half are unemployed.

Mosques are banned from making political declarations since they were used to promote the FIS in 1991. (haven't double-checked this)

And here is a story about mobile polling stations (Jeeps!) that have been crisscrossing the desert, to allow Algeria's nomads to vote.