A Cakewalk

The Algerian presidential campaign is dominated by Abdelaziz Bouteflika, substantively and visually. So vigorous has been his campaign that Boutelfika skipped the Arab Summit in Doha, sending FM Medelci instead. Others have attempted to initiate their own narratives — this is implicit in Hanoune’s, as she is a Trotskyite, and it is increasingly clear in Mohamed Said’s campaign, though he was an remains a relative unknown. Touati has for the most part tried to coopt Bouteflika’s platform using a different face, and Younsi and Rebiane have used their campaigns as platforms to attack the regime, with the former’s platform being the more dissident of the two, ideologically speaking. He are the dominant trends in Bouteflika’s campaign. Note that most of the candidates have followed this template as well, as the race is structured such that their efforts re-enforce Bouteflika’s dominant position. Such are “elections” in Algeria, and elsewhere.

1. Appeals to old guard nationalism, which is pervasive throughout the entire campaign, but which is seen especially in his constant appeals to revolutionary rhetoric, events and causes. This was most evident in Batna, but is also seen in the other candidates’ campaigns (who resent being called “minor,” apparently) and was seen in his speech in Tizi Ouzou. This is a feature of Algerian politics in general, especially as a means of obscuring economic or ethical issues, and Bouteflika uses this to remind voters of his war-time cred and that he has been around forever. The protectionist and populist grumblings found in most of the other campaigns — notably Touati’s complaints about foreign workers [re. Chinese] and Hanoune’s endorsement of Chavez-style public works projects and her support for tossing peasants’ and farmers’ debts (Bouteflika has already claimed idea as his own; see here for some background)– also play into this.

2. Affirmation of hostility to “extremism”: This is intended to please eradicators and secular leftists. It is also related to his trying to cover both bases in terms of “reformed” Islamists and former hard liners. He has affirmed his commitment to reconciliation and the amnesty but is attempting to do so without appearing soft. It is having mixed results. Bouteflika’s efforts to co-opt as much of the Islamist as possible have made many of his original military backers uncomfortable, and while the intention of the reconciliation arrangement was not to “bend” to Islamist demand, but rather to offer a framework that would incentivize an end to violence on both sides. The elements within the regime who were unwilling to compromise have been muscled out, those whose stake in the conflict was monetary, criminal or otherwise without ideology were given an official means of sticking around with impunity.

3. Lip-service to Berber aspirations. His “historicvisit to Tizi Ouzou, Bejaia, and other visits to Ouargla, Tebessa and even Batna are meant to signal a greater interest in and sympathy for Berber interests and grievances – His “I am a true Amazigh,” declaration for instance, and promising to create a “Berber Academy” are targeting Kabyle sentiments. (It should be mentioned that though this is his first real visit to Kabylia since 2001, the AP article makes the region sound much more dangerous and much more fanatical than it actually is.) The goal? To boost voter turnout in Kabylia. He has never been popular in Kabylia, a result of his own statements on the Berbers and the events of 2001. He has been quiet on Berriane and has not made any promises with regards to officialization, but has repeatedly mentioned support for standardization. Little can be expected from these promises, but it signals an official recognition that the regime needs to engage Kabylia and the Berberist agenda. Why? Because the Berbers are so numerous, because of the growing sentiment that Berber identity (Amazighité) is or should be an essential part of  Algerian identity and because the Berber identity is tone of the remaining facets of Algerian political and cultural life the regime has been unsuccessful in co-opting (as it has been with Arab nationalism, Islamism and most of the left). From sources in Kabylia these efforts have been mostly unsuccessful, despite large crowds at Bouteflika’s appearances in the region. Other candidates, notably Hanoune and Mohamed Said have commented on the importance of Tamazight as well, showing that the issue is gaining in salience in official circles. The root issues — respect for the citizenry and basic dignity — are not addressed in the Bouteflika campaign.

4. Overwhelming media blitz and obstructionism. This is an obligatory ritual of virtually all Arab political contests. Bouteflika’s upper ranking staffers have predicted a landslide victory, topping 80%. This is guaranteed by the fact one gains only basic knowledge (if that) from official broadcasts regarding the “candidates.” Most programming spotlights Bouteflika and his accomplishments: The other candidates are blatantly ignored. Three have threatened to withdraw in protest of unfair play and outright violations of campaign laws (such as Ouyahia’s public endorsements of Bouteflika, which he is not allowed to do by law). Those who encourage a boycott have been repeatedly denounced by officialdom as unpatriotic and “dangerous”; Because none of the candidates in themselves pose a threat to the Bouteflika campaign they have been for the most part unmolested. But the repeated calls for greater fairness by some (particularly Younsi and Rebiane) have earned them grumpy condemnation of Interior Minister Zerhouni. Mosques have been ordered closed during certain times of day to prevent organized religious voting or opposition. While facing the pressures of a farcical campaign, candidates have also had to deal with the fact that their participation has damaged their credibility in the eyes of the broader public and especially the more vocal opposition. Those not participating have had it worse off than those in the race: the RCD raised a black flag in place of the national standard to declare 9 April a day of national mourning, calling for a reversal of the “12 November coup” (opposition figures refer to the amendment extending term limits as a “constitutional coup”). RCD’s statement also made the accusation that Bouteflika was using state funds for his campaign, something that Rebiane has also alleged. These accusations are ignored in most official media. Sources in Algiers describe a familiar scene, with images of Bouteflika and, as one put it, “his accursed dove” draping over the facades of buildings, on street signs, store fronts, bathrooms and every other order of public place. Further south, the propaganda is cast in socialist realism (as illustrated leaders usually are), with images of Bouteflika surrounded by joyous workers, doves fluttering and the sun shining. One could easily replace Bouteflika’s face for Mao’s.

For more on the other candidates, see this Magharebia report on Mohamed Said (in English, Arabic and French), and these videos on Louisa Hanoune (Arabic and French). For a speech by Moussa Touati, see here (Arabic). See also this forum featuring among others Hocine Ait Ahmed (of the boycotting FFS) and Salima Ghezali. See also this Al-Ahram article by Amira Howeidy which declares Bouteflika’s reign a “failure” and derides the reconciliation efforts of his government. Keep context in mind with all of these links.


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