After half a century of turbulence, the last 15 years has been a period of relative peace and stability for Algeria. The country was little affected by the Arab Spring of 2011 and the latest presidential election in April 2014 unfolded smoothly.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s administration – now into its fourth term – has unveiled a number of policy priorities, with broad initiatives looking to strengthen sustainable development, including job creation, public works projects, natural resource governance and fiscal management in an era of increasingly low oil prices.
The reason for Algeria’s comparative steadiness is in part a product of its recent history. The contemporary development of the Algerian state has been shaped by two periods of conflict, a bitter eight-year struggle for independence and a decade-long conflict with extremist groups 23 years ago that resulted in an estimated 200,000 deaths. However, following the successful resolution of the 1990s conflict – brought about in part by negotiations led by President Bouteflika – Algeria has since managed to avoid popular unrest and improve living standards for the bulk of the country’s population.
This has been enabled by the country’s sizeable oil and gas reserves, which have allowed its hydrocarbons revenues to be channelled into large-scale public expenditure on public housing, health care, education, credit facilities and subsidies on goods such as petrol, sugar, flour and cooking oil.
The country saw limited protests over food prices and unemployment in January 2011, but the government’s response, which included lowering the prices of basic foodstuffs and removing the state of emergency law that had been in place since 1992, helped stave off further unrest.
Indeed, the government has been reasonably adept at responding to discontent amongst the populace. Following unrest in 2001, for example, the government agreed to a number of concessions for the country’s Berber population, including official language recognition. Furthermore, following the latest election, the government reached out to opposition parties by offering to discuss the implementation of a new constitution.
President Bouteflika and his government have been championing constitutional reform since his re-election. Recently, this has become a key political topic. The general outline of reform put forward by the government in May 2014 includes plans to reduce the power of the president and to place more authority and oversight in the hands of the parliament.
The president has suggested a number of measures aimed primarily at reinforcing the independence of the judiciary, strengthening the role of parliament, affirming the rights of opposition parties and protecting civil liberties. Specifically, this includes measures to reintroduce presidential term limits, expand investigations into political corruption, provide the prime minister with greater responsibilities and improve freedom of the press, religion, and the right to assembly and engage in peaceful protest.
However, detailed proposals have yet to be unveiled. The opposition, led by the Coordination for Liberties and Democratic Transition ( Coordination pour les Libertés et la Transition Democratique, CLTD), a bloc of opposition parties including the Islamist Movement of Society for Peace ( Mouvement de la Société pour la Paix, MSP) has rejected the idea and called for a more extensive and radical move towards transparent and democratic government. However, this is unlikely to pose a significant threat to the government. Given that the MSP was in government with the National Liberation Front (Front de Liberation Nationale, FLN) until 2012, the CLTD has limited credibility amongst the electorate and has not addressed the issues that most resonate with voters.
The moves by the government to reform the constitution and improve parliamentary and judiciary independence – particularly in contrast to the unrest in other neighbouring countries – have improved public perceptions of domestic governance, although more remains to be done.
An example of this lack of engagement is a 2009 survey by the Arab Barometer, a joint US-Arab academic initiative, which illustrates the level of disillusionment with politics. A majority of respondents (67.7%) said they had little or no interest in politics. Furthermore, over 70% of respondents had no, or very little, trust in parliament.
By 2013, the situation had improved somewhat. While there is still plenty of room for further improvement, Arab Barometer found that 32% of respondents felt the state of democracy and human rights in the country was good or very good, four times higher than in 2011.
The 2014 presidential elections reinforced the turnaround in the country since the period of civil war in the 1990s. President Bouteflika was elected for a fourth five-year term with 81% of the vote, an indication that the country is on a more stable footing. Indeed, in spite of a handful of concerns over fraud, the elections were largely considered fair, with observers reporting that, “procedures were conducted in accordance with national legislature and international standards.”
There were small protests both before and after the 2014 polls, but in large part the most recent presidential elections were carried out peacefully, a sharp contrast to the tumultuousness of other neighbouring countries such as Tunisia and Egypt.
Six opposition parties boycotted the election believing that it would do little to alter a system in which FLN has been the dominant actor since independence from France in 1962. Disengagement from the political process remains a major concern for the country, with turnout for the most recent elections standing at just under 52%.
In an effort to bring about a more representative legislature, the National People’s Assembly was expanded from 389 seats to 462 seats as part of a series of reforms adopted in 2011. These reforms also reserved one-third of the spots on electoral lists for female candidates, established a judicial panel to oversee the electoral process and loosened many restrictive policies on opposition publications.
The most recent local and legislative elections were held in May 2012. Voter turnout for parliamentary elections has traditionally been low, but the 43% participation in 2012 topped the 36% turnout seen in 2007. A total of 44 parties participated in the elections, including seven Islamic parties and several leftist parties.
The FLN increased its share of the expanded assembly from 35% to 47.5%, or 220 seats. The National Rally for Democracy (Rassemblement National Démocratique, RND) maintained a roughly 15% share with 68 seats. The third-largest group, the Green Alliance, includes three Islamist parties, the MSP, the Movement for Islamic Renaissance, and the Movement for National Reform. The three parties ran on a joint ticket, but performed more poorly than expected, winning just 49 seats (10.6%). The Socialist Forces Front won 27 seats, and the Workers’ Party won 17.
The global oil price slump poses a challenge for Algeria. Hydrocarbon revenues account for more than 60% of government revenues in the country, according to the World Bank (see Economy chapter). As a result, Algeria’s budget deficit is expected to reach 11.5% of GDP in 2015, up from 6.2% in 2014. The current account deficit is also expected to swell, increasing from 4.5% of GDP in 2014 to 15.8% of GDP in 2015. This in turn will bring imported inflation, with the rate expected to reach 5.5% for 2015. “Remediation of the world oil market and the preservation of Algeria’s purchasing power – as it is linked to hydrocarbon export revenues – constitute a major axis of Algerian diplomacy,” Ramtane Lamamra, minister of foreign affairs, told OBG.
The government has traditionally been able to respond to prospective political crises with increased public spending. In 2011, for example, the government expanded food subsidies and offered a 34% pay raise for public sector workers. However, in the current fiscal environment, the government’s ability to enact such a response is somewhat constrained (see Economy chapter).
The World Bank projected that the subsidy programme in the country would reach almost 13% of GDP in 2014. As a result, the urgency within Algeria to diversify and restructure the economy in order to reduce the country’s reliance on hydrocarbons is becoming ever greater, as is the understanding that more private sector jobs need to be created.
Another priority for the authorities is strengthening security. Algeria’s security and military forces are among the most experienced in the region, following the unrest of the 1990s, and in the years since, they have aggressively sought to address security threats and reduce overall risk – no small challenge given Algeria’s vast and sparsely populated interior, and prospect of contagion from extremist groups in Mali and Libya.
Algeria has an large security apparatus. The number of police officers rose from 90,000 in 2009 to 209,000 by 2014 – one police officer for every 187 citizens – well above its neighbour, Morocco, which has 1 for every 717 citizens. In France, the figure is 1 for every 455 citizens. Algeria also has a well staffed army, with 512,000 frontline soldiers, compared to a force of 40,500 in Tunisia.
The importance of ensuring security in the country was brought home in January 2013 with the attack by an Al Qaeda affiliate on the In Amenas Gas Plant close to the Libyan border, and approximately 1300 km south east of Algiers. Security forces moved in to free the hostages, but not without casualties, including six British nationals. In September 2014, a local ISIS affiliate kidnapped and executed a French national, while a group of Algerian soldiers was ambushed in July 2015.
However, as a consequence of the attacks, the government stepped up efforts to secure the country’s borders. In 2015, 12,000 troops were sent to protect the border with Tunisia, while similar numbers were sent to the borders with Niger, Mali and Libya. This action built on a 2012 border security agreement between Algeria and Tunisia for joint cooperation on a shared border patrol. In January 2013, Algerian officials met with Tunisian and Libyan counterparts to discuss border security. By 2014, Algeria had effectively closed its borders apart from certain areas bordering Tunisia, making them special security zones.
Algiers continues to push for greater regional cooperation. Following a bomb attack on a Tunisian presidential guard bus, claimed by ISIS, in November 2015, Lamamra announced that the country was ready to work with Tunisia on a variety of counter-terrorism measures. Algeria “is mobilising its capabilities and makes its experience available to Tunisian brothers to fight together against terrorism”, said Lamamra.
Algiers has also been pushing diplomatic efforts to bring greater security to its neighbours by encouraging a move to reach power sharing and peace deals in both Libya and Mali (see analysis).
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