The local and regional elections that took place in Algeria on Nov. 27 are the last in a series after the fall of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April 2019. They were preceded by a presidential election that elevated Abdelmadjid Tebboune in December 2019, a referendum on the revision of the constitution in November 2020, and legislative elections in June 2021. Once again, Algerian observers can’t help but ask about the meaning of these repetitive flawed elections. Analyzing elections held in an authoritarian context for what they should be, namely a bridge toward a democratic transition, is indeed fruitless. By analyzing the purpose they serve for the actors themselves, however, we can understand why they still occur despite their lack of credibility and how their illegitimacy shapes current Algerian politics.
Elections to avoid to conflict (again) on regime change
The victory of the Islamist party the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in the first free multiparty elections ever organized in the country — the local elections of 1990 and legislative ones of 1991 — led to the cessation of the electoral process in 1992. Its resumption, by anticipatory presidential elections in 1995 and parliamentary ones in 1997, was presented by the Army as the only way out of civil war and was therefore backed by the population. The reinstatement of military control over the ballot box, associated with massive fraud and limited pluralism, undermined elections as a vehicle for regime change and established a tacit acceptance of poll rigging as the only way to avoid state collapse. Since then, the central government has used pseudo-elections to ensure that only discredited (and therefore harmless) local representatives would emerge. Opponents and co-opted political parties have used these “elections” to negotiate representation within state institutions (or outside them when choosing boycott as a political weapon), while avoiding conflict on the thorny question of how the state should be administered.
While this tacit agreement on electoral illegitimacy to regulate political negotiation seemed to have stabilized the Algeria political scene, the Hirak came to the fore in 2019, bringing back slogans about popular power (soulta licha’b) and people’s independence (ech’ab yourid listiqlal). But the worsening of the economic, health, and social crises since 2019 made the issue of political autonomy difficult to solve without any alternative access to state institutions.
Elections to keep local authorities under control
When appointed by the military in December 2019, President Tebboune announced plans to organize a series of legislative and local elections. The official reason was to get rid of "corrupted" elected assemblies inherited from the Bouteflika era. The real motive, however, is that the regime’s survival depends on elections that mainly allow for the emergence of shaky local representatives. Before the vote, the candidates’ selection follows various formal and informal rules that favor what ordinary Algerians describe as “carnival” figures — even convicted politicians have been allowed to run for office — and sidelines opposition parties by not granting them administration agreement. During the campaign, appointed supervisory councils adopt a laissez-faire attitude toward fraud and vote buying. Clientelism and depoliticized local exchanges then damage the candidates’ potential to address the population’s grievances vis-à-vis the central state. Finally, the decisions taken on the local level by the mayor are limited by the financial and administrative supervision of the wali (in charge of the wilaya, the region, who is appointed by the president) and an ineffective recruitment process that yields poorly qualified civil servants. Mechanisms to consult with citizens on various policies and budgets are absent (and not looked for). Even internal decision-making processes that oblige antagonistic parties to work together in committees force potential stand-alone mayors to abandon their electoral promises and manage affairs ad minima if they want to avoid administrative stalemate.
Until now, the low standards of local elections have successfully protected the central government against any intra-institutional contestation but also at the same time encouraged ineffective local governance. If Bouteflika's centrality through his many presidential decrees and economic and social redistribution programs was somehow able to counterbalance the dysfunctions of municipal and regional policies, Tebboune cannot count on his representativeness alone to embody a strong state. Fully aware of his own limitations, the president has shirked responsibility in his public discourse. He regularly explains that his reforms against corruption or for local development are delayed because of an incompetent bureaucracy. Deflecting grievances against local representatives has become a convenient way to divert attention from the government’s own failures.
It will be necessary to analyze the effects of this disengagement of the presidential figure as the official arbiter of the political field on the weakening or strengthening of local representativeness. The 2021 local elections have already given indications of a possible split between central and local ideological alignment. While Tebboune declared that turnout did not mean much to him, traditional political parties like the National Liberation Front (FLN) and the Democratic National Rally (RND) did not mobilize mosques, local administration, or official media as aggressively as they used to and they downplayed references to the regime in power.
Political life restricted by the elections
The state management of elections has weakened the ability of political parties to ensure good local governance. Twenty years of overwhelming populist presidential representativeness have distorted the meaning of political competition by standardizing their content. Consequently, political activity has been weak outside of elections (recruitment and training of militants or candidates, relaying of grievances, mass political socialization, etc.). During the 2021 local polls, many parties launched collectives and made alliances with no coherent national strategy, allowing candidates to change parties to the highest bidder. A growing number of “independent” lists flourished as well, blurring the lines between classical ideological campaign arguments (Berberists, Islamists, democrats, nationalists, etc.). Those came in third place, behind the former single party, the FLN, which still held the most seats, and the RND.
Independent lists are linked to several factors. First, no new party has been authorized since 1999, when Bouteflika was appointed to his first mandate. In 2012, in order to counter a potential Arab spring uprising in Algeria, 44 small parties were suddenly authorized in the run-up to the 2012 local and legislative elections to flood the political scene. Many of these new, non-representative, parties were, in fact, launched by former members of the FLN and the RND, making it possible for the central government to not depend on only one party while closing the political field to genuine outsiders. In the 2012 and 2017 legislative and local elections, businessmen and local patrons joined these administration parties, using their ability to corrupt votes and provide local privileges due to their MP positions and immunity. They granted themselves large pay raises and privileges such as diplomatic passports, creating rifts with older activists. In 2019, many FLN and RND defectors joined less stigmatized factions during the witch-hunt launched by the Army against the issabate (Bouteflika mafias and former leaders of these parties), partly because of its restructuring and partly to lessen the Hirak demands for reform.
During the local and legislative elections of 2021, independent lists succeeded thanks to the constitutional revision of the electoral law the same year. New advantages were given to participants, in order to increase the number of contestants the central power could retain to embody its promises of a “New Algeria.” These include parity between male and female candidates, reimbursement of some campaign expenses for candidates under 40, and the end of the “closed list” system that imposed a “head of list” upon the voter. The latter was officially aimed at preventing external patrons from “buying” this influential position.
Opposition parties that joined in the local elections in 2021, such as the Front of Socialist Forces (FFS) and the Movement of Society for Peace (MSP), have been criticized for their participation. Although they rejected, and sometimes boycotted, presidential and legislative ballots, they tried to convince their audiences that local elections would be more meaningful. These candidates are not naïve about a sudden democratization of the electoral process due to its local nature; they know that elections are not an opportunity to replace the ruling elites but rather a compromise with the central government in exchange for their participation. That is why they have circulated images of fraud on social networks but rarely gone to court over the issue.
Strategies of auto-limitation among opposition parties have occurred in authoritarian contexts, and in the case of Algeria, the peaceful attempts by the Hirak to revive the issue of state capture outside the limits imposed by the ruling regime and the repression that followed have forced all actors to realign. On the side of the administration, the narrative focused on elections as the only future for the Hirak. The president of the National Independent Authority for Elections (ANIE), which was created in 2019 and whose members are appointed by the president, declared that this body was “the fruit of the Hirak.” The president of the Future Front, created in 2012 as a “younger” FLN and very well placed in the 2021 elections, argued that it was time to “go from the streets to the polls,” while many independent candidates who once joined the ranks of demonstrators declared that they used their candidacy to “not leave room for corrupted candidates.”
Even many Hirakists have unwittingly helped the central state to use elections as a diversion from real reforms by continuing to mobilize around the idea of a boycott. Indeed, at its inception in February 2019, the movement allowed for the emergence of an autonomous, peaceful space where neighborhood committees, village councils, university and trade union assemblies, and street debates engaged civil society organizations and ordinary citizens, who had started to imagine forms of transition and retaking of local institutions outside the road map of the regime. This was quickly marginalized by a greater focus on demonstrating against the elections that the military was trying to organize. Political influencers within the movement even attributed the abstention rate to the “awareness" the Hirak raised among the population. But by turning polls into referendums that define those who are “with” or “against” the Hirak, the movement has abandoned its political criticism of the state for a moral criticism of the illegitimacy of the process. Aligning with the electoral agenda of the ruling elite, it then lost its power to advocate for equal access to state institutions for all Algerian citizens.
By the end of 2021, abstention from voting did not seem to be such a revolutionary choice. Moreover, the Hirak’s main contribution, namely the repoliticization of local representativeness, continued to be replaced by illegitimate elections that only serve centralization of power and privileges.
Illegitimate elections in the Algerian authoritarian context allow the central government to limit the ambitions of local representatives and monopolize the attention of opposition movements, which self-limit their mobilizations to the political issues imposed on them from above. They also have two main drawbacks: the disengagement of the central government from public management and the breakup of political parties.
As the electoral agenda has nothing to offer before the next presidential elections in 2024, could we observe a return to protests? Could a new cycle of mobilization achieve what the Hirak aimed to in 2019 and 2020: a peaceful renewal of political representation that preserves the state as well as checks and balances between civilian and military powers?
Over the past two years, elections to launch the “New Algeria” have shown that by limiting local representatives they do nothing to improve central institutions and citizens' day-to-day problems. They also affect the ruling elite’s populist promises of reforms; in particular, President Tebboune’s ability to arbitrate nationally was limited by ineffective local management. However, the disconnection of citizens to their local representatives has encouraged territorial solidarity in times of crisis, such as providing oxygen for COVID patients and fighting forest fires, beyond tribal and regionalist arguments usually used by officials to frame local demands and needs. The process of decentralization that Tebboune promised during his campaign, but which was abandoned in the 2020 revision of the constitution, should be brought back without ignoring the efforts of Algerian citizens to sustain national cohesion despite poor institutional capacities.
Since 1995 and 1997, fixed elections have replaced direct political negotiations on state resources by a controlled integration of political parties. Their repetition has also affected the official propaganda on the ideological party’s apparatus as a key framework to get elected or earn local power. Newcomers during the local elections of 2021 seemed more eager to talk about their university degrees to gain voter confidence than to reveal their privileged access to the FLN or the RND, and thus to state institutions. It is urgent that the central government reinvent local consultation with citizens to address their needs — such as improved infrastructure and health care — instead of focusing on which ideologies local representatives are attached to and whether these are endangering its monopoly of the state. As a freshly elected young mayor put it to me, this is a crucial step to ensure that Algeria will not continue its transformation into a djoumhouriya bi doun djoumhour (“a republic without a public”).
Amel Boubekeur is the co-director and co-founder of Institute for Social Science Research on Algeria (ISSRA), a sociologist at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), and a non-resident scholar with MEI’s North Africa and the Sahel Program. The views expressed in this piece are her own.
Photo by RYAD KRAMDI/AFP via Getty Images
 Although contested by the Hirak and the opposition press, official numbers were 39% turnout for the presidential elections in December 2019, 23% for the referendum on the constitution in November 2020, 23% for the legislatives in June 2021, and 36% for the local elections in November 2021.