Party Hopping Again

DZCalling’s comment on the previous post on Abdallah Djaballah pointed to the ongoing power struggles and divisions in the FLN, Algeria’s former single party until 1989. It brought these points to mind which would have been a comment on that post but were not strictly related to the original point and have thus been placed here. The reference to the FLN brought to mind two things primarily: (1) generational tensions and conflicts in institutions of the political establishment; and (2) attitudes toward political change and violence as they related to some of the experiences (especially the civil war) that created those generational rifts. These are general thoughts. 

(1) Over the last decade there has been a flight of some left-wing elements of the FLN into smaller opposition parties like the Trotskyist PT as a result of the FLN’s having grown more socially and religiously conservative since the foundation of the RND (this is a trend especially identified with the leadership of Abdelaziz Belkhadem who is facing internal challenges to his leadership, which probably has as much to do with generational differences in the party cadres as it does with his historic political rivals or military mechanizations; the RND was basically a break away party from the FLN populated with establishment types, many with links to the military and big business and is considered more secular than the FLN by some standards (the line is that it was ‘born with a mustache’). This probably accounts for the PT having gained seats in every parliamentary election since 1997 (along with other factors like dissatisfaction with the privatization/economic liberalization agenda, the PT’s ability to leverage previous gains during campaigns, etc.).  Some of this is also generational in that some FLN cadres feel boxed in by their party and want to find some breathing space and room for growth elsewhere, so some join other parties or quit politics and go into business or otherwise begin new lives.

This is part of a series of shifts inside the FLN which have caused secretary general Abdel Aziz Belkhadem a great deal of grief in the last two years or so. Competing poles within the party have complained Belkhadem has not asserted the party strongly enough  in policy debates with the RND (headed by PM Ahmed Ouyahia) and, perhaps more importantly, that the party continues to be dominated by ‘dinosaurs’ and rigid cadres who block young leaders from advancing in the party. It is not uncommon to read or hear complains that Belkhadem is too heavily authoritarian in party affairs, too conservative or cautious or not creative enough. As mentioned above, complaints about the strength of Belkhadem and his allies who are often more socially or religious conservative are also somewhat common. In some cases disputes over Belkhadem’s leadership style have become so tense and frustrated that factions broke into fistfights at party gatherings and conventions and congresses, sometimes spilling into the streets as happened on more than one occasion both in big cities (Oran comes to mind) and in the interior towns in 2010 and 2011. Generational differences within the party came to a head in the early 2000s when Ali Benflis, who had close ties with the military and intelligence services it should be noted, became head of the FLN and ran against Bouteflika in the 2004 presidential election. Benflis was relatively young and had the support of a number of younger party functionaries and politicians and of some important elements in the deep state and army, that is until just around election day when many of those patrons and supporters changed their minds and backed Bouteflika at the last minute, ensuring that Bouteflika would win by a significant margin. Benflis was much younger than Bouteflika, and was not a member of the revolutionary generation (though his family had revolutionary credentials). Many younger FLN members saw Benflis as a way of pushing the party forward; some of these people suffered professionally and/or politically for persisting in standing with Benflis rather than Bouteflika. (It should be mentioned that while most of Bouteflika’s ‘men’ in cabinets and parliament are older and of the revolutionary generation there are many of them, especially technocrats, who are younger and in either case the vast majority of them are from western Algeria as has been noted on this blog before. Benflis was of Chaoui background from Batna in eastern Algeria.) The complaints coming out of the FLN (see here for a report on emerging tendencies from 26 November, sent over by DZCalling) are similar to those in other large Algerian institutions, especially the ones descended from the FLN in the parti unique days (pre-1989) like the UGTA and its subsidiaries, some of the ministries and occasionally the associations of what Zeroual called the ‘revolutionary family’ and so on. Some of these conflicts have to do with factionalism among the clients of various military, business and intelligence service elites but very often the are also a natural result of institutional politics (the MSP’s Boudjerra Soltani, for example, accuses ‘infiltrators‘ of fomenting dissent in his party ranks). This is even true in the military where promotions for younger officers are notoriously slowing going where the most senior officers sometimes shave rather distinct ideas about the military’s role in politics (it is often true, but not always, that younger people in Algeria (including military types) believe the army should have no political role other than the protection of national sovereignty and feel many older people disagree with them). Much of this ferment predates the Arab uprisings and the events of last winter but has probably been exacerbated and encouraged by the sense of urgency these events have created in Algeria. Many younger politicians and officials (and Algerian generally) give part of the blame to the older generations for the political crises, mismanagement and economic hardships the country faces and want to take their turn to try and fix or at least run things.

(2) These events are taking place in the parts of Algerian society which are most politically conservative in the sense that actors are averse to revolutionary prospects and associate it with political violence a la the 1990s. Younger cadres in the major formal parties and official associations and in private business tend to ‘get’ that Algeria needs major reforms. They disagree on what to do economically and in their views of the nuances of national identity but are generally reluctant to consider radical solutions that would put their own power or positions at risk. Reform is the dominant idea and those who want the most radical reforms usually stress a commitment to non-violence and gradualism (even those who are at the margin of political power believe non-violent resistance and protest are preferable to mass revolution). This is especially true among student and labor organizers outside the UGTA (the UGTA is a status quo actor in the estimation of young activists and organizers). These people were heavily influenced by the experience the political opening in 1988-1992 and the 1990s (and the way someone refers to the 1990s is often a partial indicator of political attitudes, as in whether 1991/1992 is called a ‘coup d’etat’ or ‘usurpation’ or an act of ‘salvation by the Army’ or ‘corrective movement’ or ‘the saving the republic/democracy’ and if the period after is ‘the years of terrorism’ or ‘the national tragedy’ or ‘civil war’ or ‘black decade’; this also extends to views of the last ten years, much is revealed if a person says Algeria ‘already had a spring/revolution in 1988-1992’ and has already ‘transitioned to democracy’ or that Algeria ‘is a democracy’ or a ‘dictatorship’ or ‘totalitarian regime’ or in the midst of a ‘crisis’ and so on and so forth). The violence of the last twenty years is the backdrop for attitudes about revolutions, uprisings, riots and political change in Algeria and elsewhere (it should not be forgotten that a significant cause for the rise of the Islamist tendency in the late 1980s had to do with generational conflicts). In the last six months it was easy to see impatience in certain reform-oriented quarters but none of these tendencies in the opposition, protest movements or parts of the major parties spoke about political change in terms of pursuing reformers (radical or otherwise) as if they would resort to violence if they did not see results; instead they argued in favor of such reforms as a  way of avoiding upheaval and violence from below or from outside the political system (all of these voices of course being actors or former actors in formal and semi-formal politics). And it is probably the case that virtually all segments on the younger side of the political class both understand and desire political reform and change, even those with the most favorable views of the status quo. This is also true at the popular level (where such feelings are reflected as exhaustion, wariness, cynicism, political apathy and the like). The questions for most people are largely about of degrees and means given the dominance of the older generations in decision-making and that the culture of the political system and establish interests are very often far stronger than the priorities of those with the best intentions and grand designs. Of course this range of attitudes about political change are not universal; there are elements in some of the Kabyle protest movement from the early part of the 2000s who still consider tactical rioting or unrest as a viable means of getting the government’s attention and pressuring it to undertake reforms and so on; last year’s youth riots also reflected how limited rioting and violence is still seen as a means of forcing change in government policy and the intensity of widespread mass contempt for the regime for large parts of the youth population. Also, given Algeria relatively bottom heavy population pyramid it is worth considering that the experience of the 1990s is hazy for many young people today unless they were directly or indirectly exposed to the war even if its memory remains strongly planted in people’s mind because of its prominence in some political discourses (the widely mentioned and ever increasing number of casualties which ranges from 170,000 to 300,000 depending on who and in front of whom one is asked) and in culture (music, movies, etc.). But these memories are still prominent and impact individual decisions. But these can be overwhelmed by other priorities and contemporary indignities. The widespread feelings of contempt ordinary people have for the political class and wider elite should not be underestimated. And to the extent that one can talk about the violent Islamist trend as having political relevance (very little policy change comes at the instigation of AQIM outside of military affairs).

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