In 2008, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika passed a constitutional amendment that removed presidential term limits. This allowed Bouteflika to seek a third term as president, a move that has drawn sharp criticism from even those within the regime. Shortly after the amendment was passed, Bouteflika announced he would seek reelection as an independent candidate. In 2009, there was a 70% voter turnout, with 90% voting for Bouteflika. The Socialist Forces Front, a social democratic party in Algeria, said the election was marred by a “tsunami of massive fraud.” For some in the country, Bouteflika is viewed as a president who strong armed his way to the top, and continues to do so through political mouthpieces.
In the 2004 election, his challenger was former Prime Minister Ali Benflis. Benflis was projected to win the election, but lost in a stunning revelation. World leaders and organizations inside and outside of Algeria recognized the loss as “massive fraud.”
Bouteflika claims that all of this is constitutional. He touts 500 million signatures he received from the Algerian people, which his opponents have called into question. The president has been asked to produce some metrics on these signatures, yet his office remains silent on the matter.
His regime has clashed with protestors over basic needs like food and shelter. Deals are done not to help grow the country, but to line the pockets of a few businessmen. Females are persecuted highly, relegated to living in fear and denied of many basic civil rights under the current regime. Some in the country, like former Minister of Justice Ali Benflis, have called for a fair election before the country turns violent. He has resolved to continually fight electoral fraud, helping to bring democracy to Algeria.
The truth is that these violations have been part of an ongoing struggle; one that Ali Benflis has played an active part in improving since 1968. Benflis, then a bright-eyed graduate from The Faculty of Law and Economic Sciences University in Algeria, was seeking a judgeship appointment. He got it in October of the year he graduated. Ali Benflis would go on to serve as minister of justice throughout three separate regimes. Over that time, he learned how the system worked, developing ideas on how to improve it. His job was to oversee several reforms. Under his watch, the country was able to reinforce the right to a solid and credible defense, the country created a list of freedoms that included the first mentions of human rights, and even improved prison conditions for those who were subject to the law. These important steps helped to provide the foundation for many of the changes that would come to pass in the country years later. The Algerian opposition also recognizes Benflis as their undisputed leader.
If elected President, Benflis promises reforms of great reach. For one, Benflis will reform how countries are able to invest in and out of Algeria as previous regimes barred businesses from investing outside of the country. He wants businesses to expand to countries where Algeria has signed a tax treaty, citing his belief that businesses should enjoy “standards of fiscal and banking transparency allowing traceability of investments.” Furthermore, to encourage the Country’s growth, Benflis plans to lower the corporate tax rate while also restore term limits on the Presidency. These sweeping changes would dramatically reform the country, setting it on a more democratic path.
Benflis also plans to campaign on behalf of women, who undergo some of the worst forms of persecution in the country. Under his presidency, women will have a fund established that guarantees them alimony payments in the event of a divorce. He has even gone so far as to ask women to come out publicly in support of him, promising a “protective wing through concrete measures within national cohesion.”
Should the election continue without fraud, polls and foreign embassies predict that Benflis will be the winner.
On the Brink
Algeria is on the brink of major turmoil with food strikes occurring frequently. Robert Ford, the United States Ambassador, wrote in a leaked cable that the country was also growing fatigued with its political isolation. Though it’s hard to find exact figures, there are claims that the country played host to over 9,700 protests in 2010 alone.
This is nothing new to Algerians, who have been under military rule since a coup took place in 1991. After a landmark decision in ’88 that brought free elections back to the country, the Islamic Salvation Front took a key parliamentary election. This caused a military coup which voided the results and plunged Algeria into a state of emergency. A ten-year war broke out within the borders of the country claiming the lives of more than 150,000 people.
Today, the picture is a bit different. There are still protests and disagreements over how the country is run, but the circumstances have changed.
Almost 70% of Algeria is below the age of thirty with high levels of unemployment within thisagegroup. The mast majority of these people are willing to vote for Benflis, and the candidate has dozens of support networks from his own country and abroad. Overall, there have been twenty-one parties pledging support for Benflis, including Islamist parties and the FLN.
The president’s changes to term limits have also presented problems. Ali Benflis, when he announced his intentions to run for president in 2008, inquired about the fraudulent signatures that made the new term limits legal. The Algerian Constitutional Council had him arrested. In response, Benflis has announced that he has intentions to take power in the event of an uprising not unlike places like Egypt and Tunisia.
The Events of January, 2011
This important month helped set the stage for the where the country currently stands. With neighboring Tunisia rioting over similar issues as Algeria, the riots seemed to spread across the borders with the nation of Algeria rioting on January 3rd. Basic increases in the cost of oil, sugar, and flour coupled with the high unemployment numbers created something of a breaking point.
The youth hit the streets in large numbers, coordinating over various social networks. Young people blocked roads, set fire to trash and tires, looted government installations, and clashed with riot police. The physical violence would ultimately leave over 800 people injured and three demonstrators dead.
Self-Immolation also became a popular form of protest, with four people having died of their wounds since the trend caught on in January of 2011. Protestors were even dared by the government to burn themselves in some cases, with at least one death attributed as a response to that mocking.
It could be argued that state media is a big part of the problem. Ali Benflis argued in a recent debate that state-run media was considered property of the regime. He argues that Algerian public, and in some cases private, media are attempting to reinforce the legitimacy of the government and paint a different picture of the protests. Protests have again been building in the country with calls for current President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to remove himself from the running for the presidency. For the past fifteen years, there has been a standing band on peaceful protests within the capital.
Though there are six candidates approved to run against Bouteflika, including Ali Benflis, state media is shutting out all mentions of any of them. Independent station Al-Atlas has been shut down after the government recognized it as a broadcaster of opposition viewpoints. Studios were raided by police and government forces, and materials such as cameras and DVDs were seized. The channel was told that it didn’t have a license to broadcast the materials it was showing.
These violations are very real, and without free access to elections as well as candidates who are willing to reform the political landscape, the country could be headed on a collision course.
Still, Benflis believes that his country can change. If elected, he said, he would reinstate term limits for the presidency and grant more authority to localized officials. Fundamentally, Benflis believes Algeria needs to redefine its relationship with its own government. He knows the country has a long road ahead, but he is proud to help the people walk it.