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Issue 39, June 1999

Algeria: Le Pouvoir in power

LEFT ALONE IN the race, Abdelaziz Bouteflika was 'elected' president of Algeria on 15 April. The other six candidates stepped down on the eve of the election, alleging ballot-rigging and fraud.

The 62-year-old former National Liberation Front (FLN) partisan was widely known as the candidate supported by 'le pouvoir' - the shadowy army-led power behind the regime. During his campaign, Bouteflika pledged for reconciliation. But will he deliver? And can he end Algeria's bloody civil war?

Given that only one in four people bothered to vote, most Algerians are sceptical. They are even more sceptical in Tizi-Ouzou, the capital of Berber Kabylie, where only 5% voted. Although the six candidates who withdrew did not call for an election boycott, the majority of Algerians understood what was happening. And they did not disappoint!

Bouteflika, despite laying on the charm and diplomacy, is not a credible figure. If he tries to weaken the control of the rigid military establishment - a task demanded by the West in order to force through social and economic restructuring - he will encounter fierce rivalry from the army generals. It was, for example, pressure from General Lamari and Tewfik Mediene, the head of military security, which forced the last president, Liamine Zeroual, to resign last year. This made him the fourth ex-president since 1992. Lamari and Mediene have survived them all!

It is true, though, that the army is more divided now than in 1991 and the military's code of solidarity, known as 'asabiyya', is weakening. That may open the door to the development of the political process. So, will the balance of power switch towards the civilian politicians for the first time in the history of post-independence Algeria?

On being 'elected', Bouteflika said he would rule for all Algerians and that he would even negotiate with the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). He said he would discuss with all the parties. Yet, in one way or another, all of these are linked to the regime. Even though they criticise Bouteflika, they do not have any fundamental differences.

  None of the candidates can bring a real change to the country, as they all come from the same political tree - ex-liberation fighters who branched out to lead their own groups, often after disputes within the regime's factions. One of the election rules even made it a condition that all candidates old enough to have participated in the war of independence against the French (1954-62) had to have a proven war record. That did not, however, stop the regime banning the veteran Mahfouth Nahnah from standing. Louisa Hanoune, leader of the Workers Party (PT), was disqualified from standing because she failed to gain the 75,000 signatures needed. But none of opposition parties, including the Socialist Forces Front (FFS, affiliated to the Second International), represent an active mass movement.

The Berber nationalist Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), which called for a boycott of the election, acts more as a lobby group than a political party, whereas the would-be winners of the 1992 election - the FIS - remains outlawed. It was the banning of this party as they were about to win a clear victory which unleashed the barbarous civil war, at the cost of over 70,000 lives. This war is still rumbling on despite the regime's claims of victory.

Bouteflika will hope that the recent partial recovery in the oil price - to $15 a barrel from its low of $10 in the wake of the economic devastation wrought by the Asian contagion - will enable him to restore some stability to the country. He could attempt to use any breathing space to mitigate against the effects of further privatisation and deregulation. This price recovery has allowed Algeria to postpone a further IMF loan.

However, any economic respite will be short lived. Bouteflika will not solve Algeria's problems. Prosperity and wealth will remain in the hands of the few. The 'socialist' foreign minister of the sixties and seventies (Bouteflika served as foreign minister between 1963-79 when a large proportion of the Algerian economy was nationalised) will bank on capitalism. He will continue with Zeroual's IMF-inspired privatisation programme and this will inevitably provoke further clashes with the youth and strikes and occupations.

This will leave the majority of Algerian people struggling to secure the minimum existence. Young people - 70% of the population is under 30 - feel totally alienated. More than half the population - about 15 million - live on the breadline, and 30% of the workforce is unemployed. This is a potentially explosive mix. The belief in the ruling regime is non-existant. Criticism of the military for allowing the massacres to continue, and for provoking the instability since 1992, is widespread.

  Six weeks after the 'election', the overwhelming mood is one of apprehension. No-one can predict when, but everyone is expecting, the killings to restart. The only solution is for the left to reassemble under a young and energetic leadership. From strike movements and demonstrations against the electoral farce, even from the periodic riots, new forces can emerge. Maybe then a movement can be built, which can include the whole Berber and Arab working class, uniting all those repulsed by the regime and religious extremism.

Fathi Ouerda

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