Algeria's proposed constitutional amendments aim to restore faith in democratic institutions


Under the constitution Algeria is a presidential republic. The head of state is the president, who is elected for five-year terms. A rule limiting presidents to two consecutive terms in power was abolished by constitutional amendments passed in 2008, but reintroduced in 2016. However the detail of the reinstatement effectively allows the current president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, to run for a fifth term if he wishes. The president appoints the prime minister and Cabinet as well as one-third of the members of the upper house of Parliament, and serves as commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

The legislative branch of government is represented by a bicameral Parliament, consisting of the National People’s Assembly (Assemblée Populaire Nationale, APN), which is the lower house, and the National Council, which is the upper chamber. The APN’s 432 members are elected every five years, with the most recent elections taking place in May 2017. Two-thirds of the 144 members of the National Council are elected to serve six-year terms, with half of the elected contingent (or one-third of the council’s overall membership) running for office every three years. The president appoints the remaining third of the council members.

On the local government level, walis (regional governors), who preside over each of the 48 wilayas (provinces), are also appointed by the president.

Historical Background 

Prior to its independence in 1962, Algeria was first ruled by the Ottoman Empire, though its powers over the territory became increasingly limited during the early 18th century. The country then entered a period of colonial French rule starting in 1830. Its history differed markedly from other Maghreb countries that had also undergone periods of French colonial rule: unlike neighbouring Morocco and Tunisia, both governed as protectorates, Algeria was ruled directly as a part of metropolitan France. This form of governance, however, did not extend to most Algerians being granted French citizenship – for the most part citizenship was not made available to Muslims. Also, Algeria was not granted its independence, but fought a bitter almost eight-year war of national liberation from 1954 to 1962. Although exact death counts for the war do not exist, historians have estimated that thousands of French troops and over a million Algerians died in the fighting.

The princial pro-independence movement went on to become the main political party of newly independent Algeria AFTER INDEPENDENCE: The country’s principal pro-independence movement, the National Liberation Front (Front Libération Nationale, FLN) went on to become the main political movement of newly independent Algeria. Indeed, for much of the early post-independence period the country was a one-party state, though in practice the FLN as an organisation had little real decision-making power. Political influence was largely concentrated in the hands of a small number of politicians and military figures. The FLN remains the largest political party in the lower house of Parliament.

The first post-independence leader was Ahmed Ben Bella, a key figure in the FLN during the war for independence. Ben Bella, who led the country down a socialist path and advocated the non-aligned movement, ruled as president until 1965, when he was deposed in a bloodless coup by the chief of staff of the armed forces Houari Boumedienne.

Boumedienne followed similar leftist policies, albeit with a more centralising view. At first, he ruled the country more or less as an autocrat, but later allowed for renewed involvement from the FLN. Upon Boumedienne’s death in 1978, he was replaced – after a short period of interim rule – by former soldier and minister of defence Chadli Benjedid. Benjedid sought to open up the economy and liberalise the political system.

Following political unrest in the late 1980s, and against the backdrop of the oil price crash in 1986 and subsequent economic problems that led to rioting in 1988, Benjedid introduced a new constitution in 1989 that, among other reforms, ended the FLN’s monopoly over the political sphere and relaxed restrictions on the press.

This move culminated in general elections, the first round of which took place in 1991 and was comprehensively won by Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut, FIS), which had also dominated local elections the previous year. However, early the following year the military launched a coup to prevent the second round of elections taking place, as it was widely anticipated that the FIS would emerge from the race as the overwhelmingly dominant political power.

Benjedid was forced to resign, tens of thousands of FIS supporters and other Islamist sympathisers were detained, and a junta known as the High Council of State (Haut Conseil de l’Etat, HCE) was put in place. This plunged the country into a civil war, known as the décennie noire, or dark decade.

Dark Decade

The war began as a conflict between the military and the armed wing of the FIS, the Islamic Salvation Army. The latter declared a ceasefire in 1996; however, in the meantime the main focus shifted to a conflict between the state and the much more extreme Islamic Armed Group (Groupe Islamique Armé, GIS), which became notorious for committing numerous large-scale massacres of civilians in the second half of the decade.

The GIS was largely defeated by the late 1990s, though a splinter group, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, continued to wage an insurgency against the authorities from its stronghold in the Kabylie mountains for many years afterwards, allying itself to Al Qaida and renaming itself Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb in the late 2000s.

The military junta that seized power in 1991 first appointed Mohammed Boudiaf – a prominent figure in the FLN during the war of independence – as president, but he was assassinated shortly afterwards. Boudiaf was replaced by senior military figure Ali Kafi, who ruled as head of the HCE until 1994, when he was replaced by retired fellow soldier Liamine Zéroual. Zéroual was subsequently elected president in 1995, marking the end of the HCE’s rule. He was succeeded in 1999 by Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Current President 

President Bouteflika, now aged 80, has held the position since he was first elected to the role in 1999. He was most recently re-elected for a fourth term in 2014, when he won 81.5% of the vote from a voter turnout of 49.4%, down from the 74.6% turnout at the previous presidential elections in 2009. His nearest rival was independent candidate Ali Benflis – who served as prime minister between 2000 and 2003 – winning 12.2% of the vote. The next presidential elections are due to be held in 2019.

President Bouteflika served as foreign minister under both former Presidents Ben Bella and Boumedienne, but was absent from politics for many years until his election as president in 1999. One of his most prominent early policies was the instigation of an amnesty scheme for former militants, which helped bring a close to the country’s civil war.

During his tenure as president he has also curtailed the political power of security forces, particularly that of the formerly influential Department of Intelligence and Security, which was disbanded altogether in 2016. In 2013 President Bouteflika suffered a stroke and he has been seen in public only occasionally since then.

While there have been some major terrorist incidents under Bouteflika’s presidency – including insurgency in the Kabylie mountains and other parts of the country – Algeria has remained comparatively politically stable under his rule, and saw only limited unrest and protests, most of which occurred in 2011 alongside the Arab Spring in other regional countries; however, Algeria’s unrest was largely motivated by rising food prices and unemployment levels. The protests were met with public spending increases, which included salary raises for public sector workers and increased consumer goods subsidies, and the protests never gained the critical mass seen in other Arab Spring countries.

This stability underpins much of his popularity, and supporters have used it to counter recent calls for him to step down and hold early presidential elections, given his recent ill health and lack of public appearances. Conversely, President Bouteflika’s supporters have suggested that he could run again for the position in 2019. The president’s long tenure in power and his apparent weak health have given rise to widespread speculation about the identity of a possible successor, with his brother Saïd Bouteflika currently regarded as a likely candidate.

Prime Minister 

Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, the leader of the National Rally for Democracy ( Rassemblement National Pour la Démocratie, RND), the second-largest party in parliament, has been prime minister since August 2017.

Prime Minister Ouyahia has served in the position on three previous occasions – 1995-98, 2003-06 and 2008-12 – and also worked as President Bouteflika’s chief of staff prior to this most recent comeback. In his return to the post, Prime Minister Ouyahia replaced Ali Tebboune, the former minister for housing, who was appointed prime minister following the May 2017 APN elections, but served in office for less than three months. Tebboune had, in turn, taken over the role from Abdelmalek Sellal, who had been prime minister since 2012.

Tebboune’s short tenure in the position is widely thought to have reflected disagreements between himself and President Bouteflika, in particular after Tebboune sought to review incentives offered to some manufacturing businesses and clashed with a number of prominent business figures, whom he accused of having excessive political influence. Notably, this included businessman Ali Haddad, who is reportedly close to Saïd Bouteflika.

Policy Agenda 

It is widely thought that Prime Minister Ouyahia’s return to the premiership will be characterised by policy continuity in the framework of the presidential programme elaborated during the 2014 presidential elections, though a shift in focus in some areas is to be expected. An acceleration of reforms in the banking and finance sector has been discussed. There are also likely to be more efforts to rationalise infrastructure investment in light of the deterioration in public finances. Managing the downturn is likely to remain the primary focus for the new administration and would require structural economic reforms.

Political Parties 

Ouyahia’s government is supported in parliament by a coalition of the FLN and RND, which together secured a parliamentary majority in the May 2017 APN elections. The FLN won 164 seats in the vote, down from 221 seats in the previous parliament, but still remained the largest party, while the RND won 97 seats, up from 70.

The RND and FLN have been part of the coalition known as the Presidential Alliance since 2005. The coalition previously had the support of the moderate Islamist party the Social Movement for Peace – which has 33 seats in the current parliament – but they withdrew from the coalition in 2012.

Other parties currently represented in parliament include two other Islamist movements: the Algerian Rally for Hope, which has 19 seats in the assembly and is led by Amar Ghoul; as well as the Nadha-Adala-Bina coalition of Islamist parties, which holds 15 seats and is led by Abdallah Djaballah.

Other long-standing parties include the Socialist Forces Front, a leftist party that was founded and led by well-known figure from the war of independence, Hocine Ait Ahmed, until his death in 2015. The party, which is currently led by Ali Laskri, is particularly strong in the Kabylie region and has 14 seats in the current APN. The Workers Party is another well-established party, led by renowned opposition figure Louisa Hanoune, holding 11 seats in the lower house.

Constitutional Reform

Among the country’s most prominent recent political developments was the passage of a package of constitutional reforms in February 2016, the second to come under President Bouteflika’s rule. Changes introduced by the reforms, which had been under discussion for many years, include the reintroduction of a two-term limit for post-Bouteflika presidents, including text discouraging the removal of such provisions, after a similar rule had been abolished by a previous package of constitutional reforms passed in 2008.

The revised document also contains a rule obliging the president to choose a prime minister from the largest political party in the APN, though this has yet to be enforced, as the current prime minister hails from the second-largest party in the chamber.

Additional key reforms also included the recognition of the Berber language Tamazigh as an official national language, alongside Arabic; changes aimed at boosting democratic rights, with new guarantees for freedom of assembly and the press; and the formation of an independent electoral commission.

These latter amendments are aimed at restoring faith in the country’s political processes, as well as galvanising voter interest, which has been characterised in recent years by low electoral participation. For example, the turnout for the May 2017 parliamentary elections stood at 38%, down from 43% five years previously, and participation in the 2014 presidential elections was also down significantly on the previous vote, from 60.9% in 1999 to 51.7%.

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The Report: Algeria 2017

The Report

This article is from the Country Profile chapter of The Report: Algeria 2017. Explore other chapters from this report.

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