Boosted by the success of peers in the region, a leading Algerian Islamist party plans to leave the ruling coalition before April’s parliamentary election to press for constitutional reforms to limit the powers of the president.
“We are for a parliamentary system, not a presidential system as is the case now, and we will campaign to change the constitution,” Bouguera Soltani, leader of the Islamist Movement for Society of Peace, told Reuters in an interview. “The final decision belongs to the shura (advisory council) which should take it by the end of this month. Personally I am with those who support the idea to leave the government and the majority is with me,” he said.
The MSP’s withdrawal from the coalition would not strip the government of its majority but the party has a big following among conservative Algerians – a large part of the population.[. . .]
Islamist parties have done well in elections this year after uprisings which overthrew leaders of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. “The circumstances that have seen the birth of the government coalition in 2002 are over. We need to find new ways to do politics,” Soltani said.
‘Algerian Islamists set to quit government and push for reform,’ Reuters 27 December, 2011.
Some quick, disorganised thoughts on these public musings by the head of the Algerian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in the context of the 2012 parliamentary election and the evolving political climate in Algeria.
The MSP sees activity as an opposition party as more profitable than its formal association with the government/regime. The MSP is the largest legal Islamsit party in Algeria. The party’s internal struggles over Soltani’s leadership style and over the party’s role in the ruling coalition have been important in that the party lost seats in parliament as a result (because a group of MPs decided to split off from the party), and that they have called Soltani’s credibility as a leader into question in the last four years or so in particular. Soltani has become less popular with the RND and segments of the FLN in recent years, especially because he has had a tendency to criticise at inopportune times and because members of his party have disagreed with the other coalition parties during votes. In one incident in 2006 Soltani claimed to have dossiers on government corruption, which caused President Bouteflika to publicly rebuke him (the dossiers were not released, but a few years later some of the MSP ministers and their entourages were faced with threats of corruption investigations; Soltani himself has been accused of shady deals with Chinese firms when he was at the Ministry for Fisheries). Some members in parliament have wanted the MSP to have amore independent line than Soltani looked able to to maintain. Others felt the MSP’s views were drowned out by the much larger FLN and RND in policy discussions. That he is now talking to the press about leaving the coalition (for at least the second time with a major media outlet) suggests the MSP is more likely to actually make the split and that it will try to present itself as magnet for religious voters who will give it weight and negotiating power with the FLN and RND. And this kind of move could energise the party’s cadres and rally some support around Soltani. Soltani has said the government is not serious about reform and the coalition and other participatory Islamist parties have come out to point out their dissatisfaction with the last decade in politics, including Abdallah Djaballah (whose situation was written about in this space recently). These formal Islamist parties look to be trying to take the initiative in forming a new political context in a period when the dominant feeling is that reforms are needed and uncertainty and suspicion make it hard to point to credible or viable political leaders or trends as real alternatives. It is perhaps not unreasonable for the party calculate that the Islamist line will be a potent alternative, though the ‘freshness’ of the existing Islamist parties, especially in the MSP, is lacking and they will need to do work to distance themselves from almost a decade of as part of the system. Other parties like Djaballah’s can rely on their more distinctive conservatism and time in the opposition. It is unlikely Algerians will vote for Islamists simply for the sake of voting for Islamists and the fact that the FLN and RND both have considerable resources at the disposal of their party machines both as a function of their incumbency and patronage networks means they can offer and provide local notables and business elites benefits the Islamist parties can only promise. 2011 saw much discontent in Algeria but it remains unclear whether the Islamist tendencies can break the wall of voter apathy and necessarily capitalise on the current climate.
The move also points to the general disillusionment felt by the major legal Islamist parties, whose experience participating in the post-civil war regime has strengthened the regime more than the Islamist trend. While these parties have gain relevance and access to resources they would not otherwise have if the FIS were legal, their involvement in formal politics have kept the religious movements divided and competing with one another in a context of FLN/RND hegemony. The presidential system has the president forming governments and appointing a full third of the upper house of parliament (the Senate); the MSP seems to be calculating that a structural reform allowing parliament to form the government or to have an expanded role in that process could be among the government’s planned reforms (which is unlikely) or that it would able to negotiate such a reform if it won enough seats in the lower house on its own or in cooperation with some other Islamist party or parties. Voter turnout has been low in most elections since 1997 and in 2007 and 2002 saw boycotts by important parties, often secular parties. An enthusiastic Islamist constituency could capitalise on a lack of popular participation if it can be mustered by the parties and their informal leaders, which Djaballah has said he anticipates. Much of this depends on the electoral strategy of the FLN, RND and the non-Islamist opposition parties like the leftist Workers Party (PT) and Front of Socialist Forces (FFS) and right wing secular party the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD). If the FFS runs (it boycotted in 2007) it would likely take a significant part of the vote and pull votes from the RCD and PT currently the largest secular opposition parties in parliament. The MSP does not seem to anticipate the electoral law will be changed to allow the FIS to run, although the government approving a number of smaller Islamist parties as means of dividing the Islamist trend and diluting its performance relative to the historic mass parties and secular opposition parties is not inconceivable. A factor to watch is whether the remaining coalition parties look to pick up another partner party in the event the MSP does leave the coalition, and how the MSP leaving would impact voting and amendments to reforms going through parliament in the interval between a departure and the elections. Times change and the Algerian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood believes it is preparing to move to better political footing as the regional climate changes and the Algerian scene movs into a period where its past arrangements are perhaps less sustainable, especially as President Bouteflika’s era beings to fade. (Keep in mind these parties’ prominence and activity in formal politics very much depended on Bouteflika’s need for them in building the reconciliation narrative and a political segment to help dilute the power of the deep state in formal politics, so they are very much a product of Bouteflika’s rise to power as the general rise in Islamist politics over the last thirty years.) A French-language report on the this development can be seen at DNA, with some background on Soltani’s recent career and background as an imam and state minister and his corruption problems. Readers can search for a number of posts on the MSP and Soltani on this blog as well.