On the PT-RND ‘agreement’

How sad the Workers Party (PT) has become. Like the other parties of the Algerian pseudo-opposition, it has come to represent only the strongest of the undesirable tendency in Algerian politics. Loud mouthed, full of angst and at a loss for action-oriented principles, the PT has contracted a virus that munches away on its host and then moves on to gobble up yet another. It is the myth of participatory opposition. Its leadership will deny that description, but its activities and activists will persist in naming it so. Like the MSP, it is ready to sacrifice what is left of its popular legitimacy for cabinet post and more parliamentary seats. Like most Algerian parties, its role in corruption and the preservation of the ruling class become more evident and more powerful as one goes up the food chain towards the houses of parliament from the municipal aide. Its popular marginality as a half-way communist group preclude it from posing an ideological or operation threat to the ruling castes, but its moderate following and image of anger make it useful in Algeria’s managed democratic show business. In a broken polity, it represents a rising star, along side the “nationalist” Algerian National Front, where most so-called opposition groups are in regime-sponsored decline or confusion. Recent events suggest that in its success it has taken lessons from other, larger parties — and has opted to move with the dominant breeze rather than be crushed by those who make the rules in Algeria’s political games.

Take for instance, the recent agreement between the National Democratic Rally (RND) and the Workers Party. The latter had pledged its support for the latter’s candidates in tomorrow‘s senatorial election. The RND is the powerful ruling party formed in alliance with the FLN by former president Lamine Zeroual. It has consistently pushed for privatization and has troublesome relations with many in organized labor. The Workers Party is a Trotskyite set and has been a staple of the court opposition for close to two decades. It began as an ideologically marginal grouping with a reputation for speaking truth to power. It has been an advocate of workers’ rights and an aggressive opponent of economic liberalization. The PT has announced that it will back the RND’s candidates in the upcoming senatorial midterm elections. The object is making well with the ruling set in hopes of gaining the cabinet positions that might be shed in a cabinet reshuffle many are anticipating. The Islamist MSP, which has come on hard times in the ruling coalition, is expected to lose one or more of its four cabinet posts; the PT currently has no cabinet seats.

Like the MSP, the PT has taken to a strategy of participatory opposition over the last decade and a half. In every round of parliamentary elections since 1997, the PT has gained seats. Along the way, its profile has risen and its national base has expanded. Its leader, Louisa Hanoune, became the first Arab woman to stand in a presidential election in 2004. In 2009 she ran for president again, coming in second place to president Bouteflika. The party has been the leading secular leftist voice in the opposition.

It has also been a strong element in the smoke and mirrors show run by the governing faction. Over time its popularity and notoriety increased, demonstrating its potential utility to the elite. The party’s base is heavily middle class, educated and strong among feminists. These are the losers in the managed “transition” initiated in the late 1990s to end the Civil War and bring about political stability. This process was structured so as to allow popular participation through elections, but only insofar as that participation made no dents in the authority of the ruling military and bureaucratic pockets. In that cause, constitutional amendments were devised regulating party platforms and creating the upper house of parliament, the National Council, with a third of its delegates appointed by the president himself (48) and the remaining two thirds elected by provincial delegates (98). Each province has two senators. The upper house’s purpose is to allow the executive branch to veto potentially undesirable legislation from the lower house (the People’s National Assembly, APN), and thus as an instrument of the president’s power within the legislative branch. The PT has had a better in time in the lower house, where it currently holds 11 seats. It holds no seats in the National Council. When controversial issues have come up in the lower house, the PT has taken strong and widely publicized positions, benefiting from its relative marginality. In 2005 its small numbers meant that it could vote “no” on amendments to the Family Code, not in hopes of preserving its restrictive provisions but because the changes offered up by the government did not go far enough to liberate women. It has championed women’s rights more aggressively than the larger parties, most recently advocating a parliamentary quota to guarantee women’s representation in government. It has raised vocal protests over educational reform and the privatization of state industries, and supported nationalistic revisions to financial and foreign investment regulations. The party draws on supporters in the labor unions and those left empty handed after privatizations. In this it has been mostly powerless but has given the process an artificial liveliness that it would otherwise lack and which is only partly convincing to the bulk of the population.

So the alliance is ago, because, as Hanoune has put it, her support for the RND will “explode the presidential alliance”. Hanoune expects that by assist the government, it will attract the FNL and RND away from the MSP, opening up space for other parties. “God willing,” she said “we will explode this alliance and say we’ve done this on the day of Ashura.” The PT’s delegates will support the RND and produce a “quantum leap for democratization and a beneficial development for political pluralism.” She then went on to criticize the FLN, the RND’s ally in dominion, as having “never been a natural ally of the workers” and being “symbolic of the on party system.” She admonished the party’s chief, Abdelaziz Belkhadem and demanded that he “refrain from interfering in the Workers Party’s internal affairs.” Belkhadam had taken to derriding the RND-PT alliance saying that it “only complicates the situation on the ground”. Belkhadam seeks FLN control of the Senate, and the PT’s support for the RND would perhaps give that party more seats than his. The RND is in good spirits, according to L’Expression, knowing that it holds the favor of the president and will likely do well in the upcoming election, at the FLN’s expense. The alliance represents excellent form: self-serving on both ends and mercilessly and transparently shameless. For this, Hanoune may expect no less than a glowing portrait in Jeaune Afrique and shrugs of embittered indifference among would be voters. She met with FLN leaders, and “discussed many things, including political nomadism. But I did not promise anything.” According to her, it is a “political agreement,” not an “alliance”. Though she has found the RND and Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia’s economic program generally deplorable, her recent posture has been more prone to applause and congratulations than pronouncements of angry dissidence. This was the course of the MSP earlier in the decade, raising big fusses on particular issues but then resolving to support government initiatives at the last minute and praising the outcome afterward. The party’s position has put certain races for the Senate into play. Algeria’s “Iron Lady,” reared in opposition has caught the great plague as powerful among Algerian politicians as swine flu is among the vulnerable: opportunism.

The PT’s influence has increased as public interest in the elective process has decreased, and its support for constitutional revisions allowing for the abolition of term limits and the re-organization of the executive branch have made some party activists uncomfortable. A young PT activist described the new arrangement with the RND as “an admission of defeat for the left”. Another called it “a rejection of our own principles.” Older members were less hostile; if the PT wants more say, to defend workers, to support women’s rights, oppose profiteering and to “promote social revolution,” it needs to “exploit the exploiters.” However one sees it, the move does little good for the PT’s public persona in a country where ideological consistency is highly valued and where political participation works against public advocates. All is not lost, though. There are many who see the PT as the only reliable advocate for women’s rights in Algeria; there are others who see the party as an advocate for the struggling middle class. The party and its leader have ruled alliance with the government in public. These factors also make it attractive to the powers that be for the purposes of co-optation. While most of the rest of the opposition boycotted the 2009 presidential election, Hanoune participated; her party’s support for the RND will only continue to confirm growing feelings that her “opposition” is less a struggle against the pouvoir than a struggle on behalf of the pouvoir. The popular question has become not “what does Louisa think?” but “who cares what Louisa thinks?” Such is false opposition in Algeria. Today the PT offers, in nearly flawless form, the operations of Linz‘s pseudo-opposition. But in such a challenging political context, one must ask: what else is one to do?

One ought not take the party’s activities to be so devious or broadly consequential, though. After all, a small party with a relatively small base must take the opportunities it can to advance its agenda. And issues like the empowerment of women, social and economic equality and improved education are bigger than a party or a personality. But at the same time, one cannot help but recall the public squabbles between Hanoune and the RND, and that deep ideological and political divisions seem to be all but forgotten in a matter of months. Whatever the case may be, there are those likely to win and those likely to lose in the current system. Politics is about competition and securing what one can. So the question rises: what else is one to do, but try to secure a place for his agenda within the system? Inflexibility would destroy a party like the PT. Pragmatism rescues it from snapping like a brittle cracker, but can the party preserve its principles when it has gone in so deep?

3 thoughts on “On the PT-RND ‘agreement’

  1. Great analysis Kal.

    I’m wondering though whether the PT is, or was the party of the middle class. At the beginning, the PT was trying to be truly the party of the working class by winning over the unions and the big factories that were left over from the socialist years: Traditional trotskyist turf. They did have some limited success (the current unions are still influenced by the FLN to a large extent through the UGTA). Today they win over votes because they are against the government more than because they are for them.

    I always thought the Middle class was divided sharply divided ideologically with loyalties to the FFS (socialist), RCD (secularist), FIS (still some disgruntled affluent people who thought the FIS should not have turned violent) and the MSP (islamic). Outside of the Kabyle areas, supporters of the FFS and the RCD are firmly middle class.

    • Thanks for reading Houwari.

      From what I know about the PT’s followers, there is a strong middle class component. At the same time, though, it does not take a swathe of it like the FIS did or the bigger parties do. At rallies there is always a working class (union people) and middle class (ex-bureaucrats and academic types). There entire support base seems to come from the fact that it opposes the government’s liberalization program (to the extent it can be called that), like you say, so you’re getting the leftist-secularist constituency. On the FFS/RCD, their support outside of Kabylia is marginal, mostly Kabyles who’ve come down from the mountains (except in the eastern interior and Ghardaia where it’s ideologically motivated among some of the non-Kabyle Berbers). Those Kabyles are often middle class types. PT’s public support does not approach the MSP’s or the other opposition parties. The UGTA is another set that needs analysis. There’s a lot of stuff on them in the 60s and 70s, not as much after. Would be interesting to look at them under Boutef, et al after the war.

      I think the PT’s overall strategy is basically survivalist: opposing enough to maintain some meaningful public credibility but going along with the regime enough to get stomped on.

  2. Nice note. It reminds me of a funny comment that an Algerian banking colleague made to me not long ago when an American banker asked him about politics, and he said (in French), “The General like to let the rabbits hop around their cage, it makes the rabbits feel better.” Hilarious (les lapins, the opposition).

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