With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the hegemony of the international liberal order was solidified. Although the number of democracies had been steadily increasing since Post-World War II, the power vacuum created by the fall of the USSR catalysed a larger influx of new members into the order than ever before, with 96 out of 167 countries with populations of at least 500,000 (57%) being considered democracies by 2017, as opposed to 1977, when only 35 of the 143 countries rated by Polity (24%) qualified as democracies. However, this influx of countries into the democratic stratum necessitated a broader understanding of democracy than the binary categorization of either democratic or authoritarian; some states could portray themselves as democratic without fully committing to the democratic process and retain many of the privileges of the democracy club without relinquishing much (if any) power to the people. Larry Diamond terms those regimes that manipulate elections in their favor, prosecute journalists with libel laws, and generally subvert democracy from the inside while maintaining a veneer of democracy to outsiders, “pseudodemocracies.” 
A prime example of a modern psuedodemocratic state is Algeria. Algeria engaged in blatantly psuedodemocratic behavior as recently as 1 November 2020, when it held a constitutional referendum aimed at reeling in and reforming the powers of the central Algerian government through constitutional amendments. On its face this seems like a positive move towards further democratization; however, to fully understand why this referendum was simply a ploy by the incumbent government to gain legitimacy domestically and globally, more historical and theoretical context is required.
Modern Algeria began to take form following the Algerian Civil War, five bloody years of jihad and guerrilla warfare by various Islamist factions against the military-controlled Algerian national government. The Civil War began directly after, and mostly as a result of, the annulment of the 1992 elections in which the Islamic Salvation Front dominated.  Violence finally began to taper down in 1999 when Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the past president’s Foreign Minister, was “elected” President in an election so marred by fraud that each of Bouteflika’s opponents dropped out on the night before the vote. 
Upon election, Bouteflika sought to draw the war-torn nation back together. He did achieve part of his aim by enacting reconciliation plans that offered amnesty to those who participated in the atrocities of the Civil War. As such, Bouteflika became popular among voting Algerians, so much so that he was reelected in 2004, 2009, and 2014 in notably free elections by wide margins.  However, while the election days themselves were free of fraud, there were significant incumbent advantages, such as exclusive media control of state television and rampant clientelism funded from state coffers.  Also, many of the opposition electorate abstained in protest of their treatment from the Bouteflika government (mostly Berbers and those of the former Islamic Salvation Front).  The existence of such an election amidst an almost insurmountable incumbent advantage presents textbook pseudodemocratic behavior.
After the Arab Spring in 2011, however, as Algerian citizens noticed the relative freedom obtained by protestors in countries as corrupt as their own, support for Bouteflika began to dwindle.  Unlike some of its Arab neighbors, the Bouteflika administration was able to placate the leaders of the unrest movement with favors and/or capital generated from Algeria’s extensive energy reserves.  Bouteflika’s popularity continued to decrease as his health issues became more serious and he became largely absent from the public eye.  In fact, a stroke in 2013 diminished his ability to speak and restricted him to a wheelchair; he still received 82% of the vote in 2014.  His subsequent election victory speech became his last public appearance until 2018, shortly before the 2019 election. 
On 10 February 2019, Bouteflika officially announced his candidacy for a fifth term by written statement. Six days later, the largest protest movement (known as the Hirak), since before the Algerian Civil War began. Citizens, outraged with the country’s growing corruption, sluggish economy and lack of freedom, demanded Bouteflika and his cronies step down from power. After four weeks of hundred of thousands of protestors mobilizing in cities across Algeria, nothing changed. But four hours after he lost the support of the military, Bouteflika resigned. 
However, if le pouvoir (the Algerian term for the shadow government composed of military, political and, economic elites who manage the country from behind the curtain and who were behind the decision to have Bouteflika step down) thought that this would appease the protestors, they were terribly wrong. Even after Bouteflika’s brother and adviser, two former prime ministers, two former intelligence chiefs, prominent business leaders affiliated with Bouteflika, and a number of ministers and senior officials from the National Liberation Front (FLN) and Democratic National Rally (RND) parties were arrested and prosecuted,  the protests continued. The primary driving force behind the protests were young people who knew no life other than one under the corruption of the Bouteflika regime. These young people, fed up with the austerity brought about by decades of corruption and mismanagement, demonstrated their commitment to completing their cause by repeatedly showing up to protest week after week despite the constant threat of violence or imprisonment. 
So what exactly is the aim of these protests? Were not Bouteflika and many of his closest advisors out of office? After years of their voices being completely ignored in favor of profiteering elites, the people would accept nothing other than complete structural change. Once Bouteflika stepped down, government officials announced a new ‘free and fair’ election that would accurately represent the opinions of the people, but, as one protestor put it, “It’s like someone who was stealing for the last 20 years and cheating for the last 20 years telling you, ‘Please trust me, I will be nice and I will organise a transparent vote.’ Everybody knows they will cheat again.” 
Unsurprisingly, there was record low turnout in the presidential election of December 2019.  Abdelmadjid Tebboune, a former Prime Minister under Bouteflika, won. The protests continued. But then, the entire world – including in-person Hirak protests – came to a standstill in early-March of 2020 with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, the revolutionary fervor was sustained through radio programming like Radio Corona Internationale, a show created by Abdallah Benadouda, an Algerian journalist who was forced to leave Algeria in 2014 after a broadcast offended le pouvoir.  The show’s popularity grew massively as Algerians searched for a connection to the spirit of the Hirak while not being able to gather in-person.
Prima facie evidence that the Algerian government continued to feel the pressure of the Hirak movement during the COVID-19 lockdown was the announcement of a referendum to amend the Constitution to circumscribe the power of the President by implementing term limits and transferring some executive power to the Prime Minister. Why would le pouvoir, who are clearly intent on maintaining their power and control of the state apparatus (e.g. all five presidential candidates to replace Bouteflika were members of his Cabinet), be interested in constitutional reform? The answer: to gain legitimacy, both domestically and globally.
Domestically, the incumbent government desperately needed legitimacy to quell the Hirak movement. As Seymour Lipset points out, regimes that are both illegitimate and ineffective must “by definition be unstable or breakdown, unless they are dictatorships maintaining themselves by force,”  and following the onset of his health problems and subsequent recession from the public sphere, Bouteflika government’s effectiveness began to diminish. The public could accept authoritarianism more easily should the government provide adequate services but because inequality, food costs, housing costs, and corruption had all increased in the latter two terms of the Bouteflika presidency, there was little confidence in Bouteflika-style governance.  This left the incumbent regime with two options to retain the status quo: gain legitimacy or impose its will through force. The latter option would have incurred the wrath of the powerful democracies the world over given the deeply peaceful nature of the protest and the increasing costs of blatant antidemocratic behavior, so it was not viable.  This led the government to announce the referendum in the hope that enough Algerians would find its changes to the Constitution, while limited, an adequate answer to the protestors’ demands; thus, legitimizing the government in the eyes of the people and quenching their thirst for radical change.
The incumbent government sought legitimacy in the international democratic order by announcing this referendum in the hope that it would be perceived as a step towards further democratization. In a prodemocracy international environment, positive perception is pivotal for receiving aid, foreign investment, and support from the world’s most powerful leaders.  Should the referendum succeed, foreign investment and aid would better the lives of individual Algerians and partially rehabilitate the country’s economic situation but le pouvoir would retain their stranglehold on the Algerian political system.
So, did the referendum achieve its goal? Was the protestors’ desire for structural reform satiated? Was the central Algerian government lauded for its democratic accomplishment? In a word, no. The Algerian citizens recognized the referendum for what it was: a democratic facade. The passing of term limits and the transferral of some executive power to the Prime Minister was nothing more than a charade to extinguish the protestors’ passion for greater democracy. Algerian citizens were not going to be duped that easily, especially considering there had already been a law governing term limits that Bouteflika himself nullified so he could run for his third and fourth term and the Prime Minister who would have gained power was also a member of le pouvoir.  Indeed, the entire referendum was a ruse to gain international and domestic legitimacy while entrenching the power of the le pouvoir and the status quo (hegemonic electoral authoritarianism) generally, actions Larry Diamond would unmistakably consider psuedodemocratic. However, because Algerians recognized the referendum for what it was, hope for structural political change in Algeria remains.
- Diamond, Larry. “Elections Without Democracy: Thinking About Hybrid Regimes.” Journal of Democracy 13, no. 2 (2002): 24.
- Paul Collier; Nicholas Sambanis (2005). Understanding Civil War: Africa. World Bank Publications. p. 235
- Burns, John F. “With a Field Reduced to One, Algerians Vote.” The New York Times. The New York Times, April 16, 1999. https://www.nytimes.com/1999/04/16/world/with-a-field-reduced-to-one-algerians-vote.html.
- Carr, Adam. “Adam Carr’s Election Archive.” Psephos. Accessed December 10, 2020. http://psephos.adam-carr.net/countries/a/algeria/.
- Smith, Craig S. “Algerian President Overwhelmingly Wins Re-Election.” The New York Times. The New York Times, April 10, 2004. https://www.nytimes.com/2004/04/10/world/algerian-president-overwhelmingly-wins-re-election.html.
- Boubekeur, Amel. “Lessons from Algeria’s 2009 Presidential Election.” Carnegie Middle East Center, April 13, 2009. https://carnegie-mec.org/2009/04/13/lessons-from-algeria-s-2009-presidential-election-pub-22983.
- Chikhi, Lamine. “Algeria ‘Not Immune to Arab Spring Revolt.’” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, August 18, 2011. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-algeria-arabspring-islamist/algeria-not-immune-to-arab-spring-revolt-idUSTRE77H2LE20110818.
- Al Jazeera. “Algeria Protesters Push for Change.” Algeria | Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, February 13, 2011. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2011/2/13/algeria-protesters-push-for-change.
- Al Arabiya English. “Bouteflika Wins 4th Term as Algerian President.” Al Arabiya English. Al Arabiya English, May 20, 2020. https://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/2014/04/18/Algeria-s-Bouteflika- camp-claims-election-win.html.
- Chikhi, Lamine. “Rare Appearance Fuels Speculation Algeria’s Bouteflika Will Run Again.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, April 10, 2018. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-algeria-politics/rare-appearance- fuels-speculation-algerias-bouteflika-will-run-again-idUSKBN1HH2FZ.
- Grewal, Sharan. “Analysis | Algerians Have Been Protesting for Months. What’s Changed?” The Washington Post. WP Company, November 13, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics /2019/11/13/algerians-have-been-protesting-months-whats-changed/?tid=lk_inline_manual_32.
- “Two Days before Election, Algeria Jails Two Ex-Prime Ministers.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, December 10, 2019. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-algeria-protests/two-days-before-election-algeria-jails-two-ex-prime- ministers-idUSKBN1YE156.
- Guerin, Orla. “Algeria Protests: Youth Lead the Movement for Change.” BBC News. BBC, April 14, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/amp/world-africa-47927296.
- 24, FRANCE. “Algeria’s Contested Presidential Election Sees Historically Low Turn out of 40%.” France 24. France 24, December 12, 2019. https://www.france24.com/en/20191211-algeria-bouteflika-vote-election-poll- opposition-boycott-algiers-salah-africa-presidential-election-president-protest-benflis-tebboune-mihoubi.
- “In Algeria, Pandemic Gives Birth to Radio Corona.” Voice of America. Accessed December 10, 2020. https://www.voanews.com/africa/algeria-pandemic-gives-birth-radio-corona.
- Lipset, Seymour. “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy.” The American Political Science Review 53, no. 1 (1959): 90.
- “BTI 2020 Algeria Country Report.” BTI Blog. Accessed December 10, 2020. https://www.bti-project.org /en/reports/ country-report-DZA-2020.html.
- Hyde, S. D. (2020). “Democracy’s backsliding in the international environment.” Science 369(6508): 1192.
- Diamond, Larry. “Elections Without Democracy: Thinking About Hybrid Regimes.” Journal of Democracy 13, no. 2 (2002): 24.
- “People Vs. Pouvoir: Demonstrators Take on Algeria’s Forces of Power.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, March 29, 2019. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa /algeria-president-pouvoir-protests-prime-minister-ouyahia-a8846446.html.
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.