Bouteflika and the Parody of Algerian Democracy

Bouteflika and the Parody of Algerian Democracy, Thursday April 9, 2009

Algeria pretended to have a presidential election today. Two-term president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 72, in power since 1999, pretended to have opposition. The five opposition candidates pretended to be his rivals, though the real opposition, such as it is (Bouteflika bans the political parties he doesn’t like) boycotted the game. And voters pretended to be voting.

If « Smy-B, » quoted in Le Monde, is any indication, blank ballots were more frequent than Bouteflika will let on: « I’m an Algerian living in France for the past six years, » Smy-B says, « and I’ve participated by absentee ballot in every election since. This year again, I did my duty. But this time, I’ve felt a certain disgust, a shame of being Algerian. I’ve taken part in what seems to me the only freedom left. But I put a blank ballot in the envelope. »

By day’s end the foregone conclusion was in the books. Bouteflika had « won » his third term with the kind of overwhelming margin reminiscent of the heydays of similarly bogus elections–those of Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, Hosni Mubarak and Muammar el Qaddafi, to name a few bygone and not so bygone little tyrants. The actual numbers aren’t in as of this writing, but it’s enough to know that Bouteflika wanted to beat his 2004 tally, when he got 85% of the tally.

Bouteflika wasn’t supposed to run for a third term. Algeria had such a thing as presidential term limits. But last November Bouteflika muscled through the legislature he controls a constitutional coup that enabled him to run for a third time, and presumably a fourth and fifth, possibly beyond the grave. (Some 500 out of 529 legislators officially supported the move.)

His five challengers were dubbed « the hares, » because aside from a Trotskyite called Louisa Hanoune, they might as well have been strangers in Algeria’s democratic night. Moussa Touati? Mohammed Said? Ali Fawzi Rebaine? Straw men for Bouteflika to clobber.

Bouteflika claims he’ll create 3 million jobs and build 1 million housing unites in his next five years. He also claims that he’ll keep Algeria safe from terrorism, although Algeria has been one of the few places where Al Qaeda’s North African franchise has managed to keep the bombings frequent and deadly. It’s also true that Bouteflika put an end to Algeria’s brutal civil war. And he tamed the military, sending its most powerful officers into retirement, which further shifted power from the military to the presidency. And yet, despite $140 billion in oil revenue, most Algerians go hungry.

The real winner in Algeria isn’t Bouteflika. It’s derision.