What lies ahead for the Algerian presidential elections?

IMAD ATOUI *
Published 28.11.2019 00:14

Two political splits characterize the political scene in Algerian politics. Despite radical movements crying out for regime change led by those known as hardliners, long-time protestors have metamorphosed into pragmatic soft-liners advancing toward presidential elections on Dec. 12.

On the eve of the announcement by the Committee of Elections (EC) of five accepted candidates last October, hardliners openly proclaimed that the system had already preselected its figures.

What is most peculiar, in fact, is that all the announced figures from the soft-liner camp were part of the previous regime, while only five out of the 22 competitors met the requirements to run for elections.

Despite being well-known public figures, the remaining competitors were legally excluded. Sliman Bekhlili and Fares Mesdour were the most well-known figures in Algeria, the former known for his wide cultural following and a TV program called "Khatem Sulaymen," the latter being an economist and professor at an Algerian university.

Approaching the deadline for the receipt of forms to the EC, both of them realized that their losses were due to obstacles they on the municipality level and realized that bureaucratic processes undermined their huge popular platforms to fulfill the number they required for candidacy.

The same causal factors that excluded the 17 competitors were the same variables that worked for the five accepted candidates. Both domestic institutions and actors holding powerful positions in municipalities were crucial indicators to determine the fate of the two cases. Domestic institutions, on the one hand, were central to the Algerian electoral system, while actors, on the other hand, comprised the elected representatives in municipal councils.

First, running for presidential candidacy in Algeria implies a bureaucratic process at the municipal level. The most strenuous process entails the candidate to have a minimum average of 50,000 signatures from citizens registered on electoral lists. Signatures must be collected in forms and ratified by the mayor of the signed individual municipality.

According to electoral rules, the signature collecting process must be from at least 25 wilayas (provinces), and the minimum number of collected signatures has to be no less than 1,200 forms from each wilaya. This implies that if the candidate obtained, for instance, 1,000 signatures from the municipalities in one wilaya, the number will not be recognized.

The vast area of Algeria requires arduous labor to collect such a large number of signatures. While in the north of the country distances from one city to another are significant, in the south the distance exceeds 200 kilometers from one municipality to another.

Besides the bureaucratic processes, most Algerians reject the entire voting process. The domestic elections of 2017 saw a participation rate of around 45% for communal elections, while in the course of the current movement has witnessed huge masses of people refusing to participate in the upcoming elections.

Actors on the municipal level were the second factor that undermined candidates from participating in elections. This indicator implies two trammels, the first one is mayors or agents holding the authority to ratify the forms, while the second is the popular platform of a political party that holds municipal office.

Municipalities represent small territorial governments overseen by mayors with varying authority; however, the mayor has no right to refuse to ratify if the forms comply with the electoral standards. Many candidates have frequently discussed on various TV channels agents who have stifled their process and widely revealed the biases of the agents toward select candidates.

In the same vein, competitors found it hard to collect such a huge number of signatures in municipalities run by former political parties. In the last local elections of 2017, results showed that around 80% of Algerian municipalities fell under parties held by the five candidates. This meant that these political parties have a huge political platform, 1,223 out of 1,450 municipalities.

Hence, it might be argued that Abdelmadjid Tebboune is actually running as an independent, even though his political platform is based on the National Liberation Front (FLN) party. The first reason he did so was due to the Algerian resentment of the National Liberation Front (FLN) and second, he has been an FLN militant for a long time. The third reason is that Tebboune is the preferred candidate for the current regime, which is FLN-ist, and the fourth reason is that this behavior is not new on the Algerian political scene: Bouteflika already did so when he first ran for elections in 1999.

While the five figures' parties swept up 80% of the vote in the last local elections, the remaining 30 political parties saw a combined 20%, and among them more than 15% boycotted the upcoming elections. However, 80% may not accurately depict the real percentage of the current political platforms; nevertheless, the total number of the needed forms is only 250,000. This has meant that, with the Hirak movement mobilizing masses on a large scale, the needed number of forms could be easily achieved.

The same factors of institutions and actors were behind the result of the five recognized candidates. Their previous activism and work on their popular platform were clearly fruitful. Despite the different results between them in 2017, the current tremendous hardliners' movement renders observers skeptical about these figures.

It could be argued that they had easy access to collect forms through their actors in municipalities; however, a missing actor is still doubtful! Thus, we can see that all candidates are not welcome in the Algerian public sphere, with restrictions so severe as to prevent even an iota of political campaigning.

All of these five figures were part of former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's regime, and today have the same approach toward the current regime. This may conclude that the Algerian Hirak movement could shake elites at the top, while the regime is still embedded at the bottom.

* Research associate at the Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA) at Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University

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