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Taking Algeria
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 15 - 04 - 2004

Abdul-Aziz Bouteflika is Algeria's president for five more years. Amira Howeidy assesses the impact of the country's elections
The surprise wasn't Algerian President Abdul- Aziz Bouteflika's victory in the 8 April presidential elections. It was the outstanding percentage of votes he received in an election described as fair and monitored by international observers.
According to the final results announced Monday, the president received a staggering 86.5 per cent of the votes, formalising an enormous gap between him and his rivals. Ali Ben Flis, his former prime minister, was considered Bouteflika's main competitor given the president's relentless efforts to weaken his position over the past few months. It was something of a blow, therefore, that Ben Flis, secretary-general of the powerful National Liberation Front (FLN) -- which endured a major split in its ranks between Flis's supporters and Bouteflika's -- received only 6.42 per cent of the votes.
The "moderate" Islamist leader, Abdallah Jaballah came third with 5.02 per cent, followed by Berber leader Said Saadi of the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) at 1.94 per cent, Trotskyite leader Louisa Hanoun of the Labour Party at one per cent and Ali-Fawzi Rebaine, head of the nationalist party Ahd 54, at 0.63 per cent.
Predictably, there were cries of fraud. Ben Flis, Saadi and Jaballah agreed that aggressive rigging took place, arguing that despite monitoring by international observers, the vote was not conducted in a transparent climate. They refused to "recognise" the results. Curiously none of them submitted official complaints. An official in Jaballah's Islah (Reform) Party justified this by saying, "those who rigged left no traces and we were left with no tangible evidence that would allow us to contest the results."
Both Ben Flis and Saadi took matters further by attempting to hold a demonstration protesting the results in Algeria's central 1 May Square, but were stopped by security forces, provoking Interior Minister Yazid Al-Zarhouni to remind the two men that public protests are banned in Algeria by Ben Flis himself when he was prime minister.
"The results are worrying and dangerous," claimed Saadi, "because they reflect a union of dictatorship, corruption and crime. And these are the characteristics of a fascist regime." Even Kim Il Sung, snapped Ben Flis, "wouldn't have gotten better results".
These, however, remain the words of an angry and defeated politician and might only be interpreted as such. But he is not alone. "Bouteflika monopolised the state-run media and adopted the German propaganda methods of World War II," said retired army general, Rashid Ben Yelles. "If the great German people were affected by this kind of propaganda, how can we expect the Algerian people to resist it? The people succumbed and those who hate him couldn't do anything," he added. The retired general went further by accusing "some" of those who monitored the elections of receiving bribes.
The powerful Berber-based Front for Socialist Forces (FFS), which boycotted the elections, issued a statement on Saturday describing the boycott as a "defeat for the regime and those who offer lip-service on democracy". The results, said the party, only revealed what the FFS predicted in advance: "a total farce that offers no ray of light."
Voter turnout was 58 per cent in 30,000 voting stations across the country. According to Interior Ministry figures, 160 international observers monitored the elections.
The presidential elections might be over, but its ramifications have extended to the FLN, bringing its internal crisis back to the fore. Following his defeat, Ben Flis's supporters in the party accused him of causing the split in the party's ranks for the sake of an election he lost miserably. Speculation was soon rife on Ben Flis's political future in the party and if he will in fact resign in response to some demands within the FLN.
But the FLN's secretary-general will not give up easily. According to his aides, Ben Flis has no intention of resigning and allowing Bouteflika's supporters -- lead by Foreign Minister Abdul- Aziz Belkhadem -- to take over the party. He is hoping to get the support of his "conservative" wing -- the old guard -- in the FLN and restore their confidence after it was shaken by his defeat. It is a task that will take some time, but is not impossible.
Although Ben Flis joined the FLN 15 years ago -- which means he isn't one of its old guard nor the descendant of one -- he played an important role in restoring its popularity in the Algerian street two years ago. The FLN ruled Algeria since its independence from France in 1962 until 1998 when violent demonstrations rocked the country in protest about the deteriorating economic situation. The constitution was modified in 1989 allowing for a multi-party system. Twenty political parties were licensed as a result, including the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) that won the 1990 municipal elections.
In 1991 the FIS won the first round of the parliamentary elections, which were scrapped by the army. Martial Law was declared as violent clashes erupted between the FIS's armed wing and the army. FIS leaders were sent to prison and their party declared illegal. As other armed groups joined the war, the situation spun out of control as bloody massacres -- targeting mainly civilians -- continued unabated for years. The violence in Algeria was particularly gruesome as its perpetrators included not only armed militants but also some units of the army itself.
These events caused FLN's popularity to decline sharply as it was largely blamed for the state of corruption that weakened the economy and forced poverty and unemployment rates to rise. It was not until Ben Flis, a highly respected judge and human rights defender, was appointed secretary-general of the FLN in September 2001 that the party revived itself, winning the parliamentary and local elections in 2002.
Ben Flis was appointed presidential chief of staff, and held the post of prime minister since 2000 until Bouteflika sacked him last May when he expressed interest in contesting the presidential elections.
But it might have been easier for Ben Flis to succeed in the difficult task of reviving the party's popularity two years ago than to maintain his position in the FLN today. The split in his party could develop into a coup now that Bouteflika's wing has gained power and legitimacy with the president's outstanding victory. This week, Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyehia called for replacing Ben Flis with Belkhadem. His call might garner support from within the FLN, including Ben Flis's supporters as the president prepares to reshuffle the government.
If speculations prove correct, political parties that supported Bouteflika will be getting more ministries in the new government. They include the Movement for Peaceful Civil Society, Ouyehia's National Democratic Rally (RND) and Bouteflika's "correctionists" wing in the FLN. To many, the future of the FLN, and how it will respond to the dynamics of the electoral process that renewed Bouteflika's term, is another test of democracy in Algeria.

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