On April 18, 2019, presidential elections were to be held in Algeria, which would have led to the inevitable victory of President Bouteflika, who has ruled the country since 1999 and was ready to run for a fifth term in office. His candidacy caused a wave of protests, and the president seemed to backtrack. He said that he would not be elected again. However, as it turned out, he did not intend to leave office in the next year and a half. Vasily Kuznetsov, Director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, spoke with valdaiclub.com about the situation in Algeria and possible scenarios for the development of events.
During the protests in Algeria, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika addressed the population three times. Two proposals were made, the first on March 3 and the second on March 12. It is true that the second proposal allows for the current system to function for some time, at least a year and a half: there is a plan to create a kind of “nationwide conference” that will carry out political reforms and create a new constitution, for a transition to the “second republic”. After that, there should be a referendum, and later elections may take place. The conference should conclude by the end of 2019, and the elections, even given the most favourable outlook, would take place no earlier than in mid-2020. Until that time, no changes in the configuration of political power are envisaged. This could be called a trick, or it could be called something else. At first, the reaction of the public was positive – because appeals to the president not to pursue a fifth term seemed to have been heard, but now the Algerians have realised that under the new agenda, there will be no quick changes.
Another question is: how objectively ready is the country to hold presidential elections without Bouteflika. The country is simply not prepared for the elections which were supposed to be held on April 18. They were prepared for Bouteflika’s election, and if he doesn’t participate, the other candidates currently have neither the resources, nor the programmes, nor the popularity to vie for the post. In addition, there is a threat of protests becoming radicalised and lead to an increase in political violence, because today there is neither an alternative to what the government has offered, nor any consolidated opposition: there is dissatisfaction, but there is no positive programme. Moreover, given the variety of parties and non-governmental organisations, the protesting masses are poorly structured, and all these different political forces represent a very small stratum. In many ways, they may become marginal.
Under the first scenario the plan that was proposed by the government is implemented; possibly with some amendments. However, so far the parameters of this plan have not been specified anywhere: the nature of the “national conference”, who will participate, what will its “inclusiveness” entail and how to ensure the independence of this process from the same Bouteflika — nothing is clear. Under this scenario, the elections may be held before 2020.
The second scenario presumes that protests become radicalised, which would lead to the possibility of a military coup. If jihadists appear, launching terrorist acts and so on, the army can take power into its own hands.
The third scenario involves the consolidation of opposition forces and the promotion of an alternative programme. There are now several of them, and many are connected with a temporary transfer of presidential powers - in fact, the transfer of power to the technocratic government or the creation of some kind of transitional legislative body. Given the different political forces, a national conference could play such a role. This would ensure the greater independence of the process and could provide for a compromise between the government and the opposition, especially if it manages to attract the broader support of the protesting masses.As for possible external interference by global or regional forces, it would only be very limited. A peculiar feature of the political culture of this country is that Algerians jealously protect their own sovereignty. It is worth noting that France has so far tried to limit comments on all these events to a minimum, because, despite the density of ties between these two countries and the difficult history of their relations, any comments can prompt the most unexpected consequences. Notably, during the protests, there were slogans like “The European Union and France – thank you for your concern, but this is a family affair, we will do it ourselves.” As for the United States, a statement has been made in support of the Algerians’ right to protest, but this is the standard position of the White House, and active intervention is impossible in this case. In principle, all external, global players today are interested in preventing chaos and an escalation in violence in Algeria. As for the Gulf countries, today they are very busy with their own sub-regional problems and they no longer have opportunity to influence matters that they had in 2011.