On March 11, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Algeria’s well-weathered president, announced that he would no longer be seeking a fifth term. The announcement came amidst widespread protests at the prospect of what would be his fifth term and a statement issued by the head of the Algerian military deeming Bouteflika unfitfor another term. Many are hailing the announcement as a major step towards emboldening both Algeria’s democracy and other African nations on the brink of either democratization or democratic collapse. But will the cycling of leadership necessarily have the effects people are assuming it will? What needs to happen in order for this regime change to have a lasting impact on the strength of Algeria’s democracy?
The Pseudo-Democracy of the Algerian Government
On the surface, Algeria appears to have the structure of a democratic country. Its official label is a constitutional semi-presidential republic, in which executive power is distributed among the president and prime minister, and legislative power is given to parliament. Both the president and the seats in parliament are legally filled using direct elections, which occur every five years. Under the Algerian constitution, Algeria is a “multi-party” state, and it currently has 40 officially-recognized political parties.
Despite these seemingly democratic provisions made by the constitution, most consider Algeria to be a “controlled democracy,” a colloquial name for a system in which power is not distributed in the way the law dictates, but is in fact held by the military and a select group of unelected civilians, in Algeria’s case called “le Pouvoir” (the Power). The members of le Pouvoir are the real decision makers and control who becomes president. Thus, Algeria has the appearance of a democracy when in fact, power is held by a political elite who have enabled a 20-year presidential regime.
What needs to change?
To understand Algeria’s potential for democratization, it is important to pinpoint where the country has gotten stuck and what institutions need to be changed or created. One obstacle to Algeria obtaining a “thicker” democracy is the large imbalance of power between the political elite and the majority. Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (2006) suggest that democratization occurs when the elites commit to more pro-majority policies, but this process only comes about in the face of a revolutionary threat – or what they term “de facto power.” Acemoglu and Robinson are correct in that giving elites too much power hurts democracy, and that only with a valid enough incentive to power-share will democracy occur. Up until the announcement by the head of the military and the climax in protests, this incentive to democratize had not been present.
Institutionally, le Pouvoir was able to significantly weaken the checks on the executive in the Algerian government. The two-term limit on the presidency was swiftly abandoned in 2008, and legal constraints on critical language in the press were strengthened in 2001.
Bouteflika’s regime also concerned many democratic theorists because it showed signs of an increasing authoritarianism. Ozan Varol (2015) coined the term “stealth authoritarianism,” a phrase describing the use of existing legal mechanisms to further an anti-democratic agenda. Some of these strategies include the use of libel laws to increase the cost of publishing anti-government sentiments and the over-usage of surveillance and other non-political crime laws to monitor and prosecute political opponents. Bouteflika and le Pouvoir have continually made use of these strategies in order to raise the cost of unseating the incumbent, which results in the erosion of what Varol terms “partisan alternation.”
Normally, when political elites attempt to consolidate control, or at the very least to weaken checks on their authority, it is the opposition – in the form of parties and their coalitions – who pushes back and ensures that democracy persists. As Norris (2017) writes, democracies require substantive parliamentary opposition; if a president does not have to answer to the opposition, then there is a significant chance he will prolong his tenure. This has certainly proven to be a factor in Algeria, where Bouteflika has not been seriously challenged by a political opponent – in fact, he won 82% of the vote in 2014. His party, the National Liberation Front (FLN), has held the majority of seats in parliament since Algeria’s independence.
The Promise of a Stronger Democracy
Now that Bouteflika has withdrawn himself from the 2019 presidential race, there is a greater likelihood that Algeria will finally address these concerning, nondemocratic facets of its government. To do so would require greater transparency on the part of the government and the elimination of the informal institutions allowing le Pouvoir to exert influence. The new government should also work to undo the nondemocratic legislation that Bouteflika managed to pass, namely restoring term limits and loosening the penal codes on the press. Democracy also requires that stronger and more stable opposition coalitions form, to make the presidential race a competition rather than just a legitimation of FLN power.
The stakes for democratization in Algeria are high. The general population has been putting a lot of pressure on the government to remove the political elite from power and eliminate corruption. Equally, if not more, important is the precedent that the elections and the new government will set for Algeria’s neighbors. Northern Africa has witnessed a democratization trend in countries such as Tunisia, and many political scientists rightly argue that a strengthened democracy in Algeria would help propagate regime change in the more authoritarian countries of the region.
However, the institutions alone cannot guarantee democracy’s stamina. The people demanded that Bouteflika step down, and they were ultimately successful. With this first goal accomplished, it is up to them to continue to push for greater institutional change and to the government to listen.
- Acemoglu, Daron & James Robinson. 2006. Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press. Chapter 2.
- Norris, P., 2017. “Is Western democracy backsliding? Diagnosing the risks.”
- Varol, Ozan. 2015. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review. 100(4): pp. 1673- 1742. Parts I, II and III.