Algeria's next move - After the voting
Algeria's next move - After the voting
Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 3 minutes

Algeria's next move - After the voting

One of the most relished jokes in Algeria is that, having been brought to the edge of the abyss on the eve of its independence from France in 1962, the country has since taken a giant step forward. Considering the facts, it's safe to say that the joke has been on the Algerians.

Over the past half century, Algerians have suffered under repressive colonial rule, a fierce war of national liberation, an authoritarian regime, a horrific armed conflict between government forces and so-called Islamic groups that has taken scores of thousands of lives, and, through it all, economic mismanagement on a scale matched only by the country's bountiful resources. As the Algerian people have chosen to give President Abdelaziz Bouteflika a fresh and impressive mandate, now might be a good time for the country to take a step back and choose a different path.

The election last week- in which Bouteflika was credited with over 80 percent of the vote - is, in many ways, a study in contemporary Algerian politics. It lacked clear platforms or genuine parties. Instead, 15 years of superficial pluralism was offset by a deep-seated communitarian reflex to vote as one for the most likely guarantor of stability.

But the unexpected margin of the president's victory suggests that there may be more to this election than a confirmation of things past. Of course, suspicions of fraud abound, and there is little doubt that the playing field had been skewed by a wide range of pre-electoral ploys. Yet there is so far little hard evidence of large-scale election-day fraud, and this seems to have been the country's most transparent election yet. By garnering as much of the popular vote as he did, Bouteflika has effaced the bitter memory of his first election, in 1999, when he was the army's clear choice and his rivals withdrew on the eve of the vote - citing, among other claims, the military's bias. This time around, the army appeared to have no preference and Bouteflika's rivals stayed in the race to the end. Bouteflika has thus put himself in the position to reduce still further the army's political role and to restore the presidency to pride of place in the system of government.

The challenge now is to fill the void created by the dismal state of party politics on the one hand, and the partial and provisional retreat of the army from the political field on the other. There are reasons to fear that Bouteflika will be tempted to act on his own, reading his popular mandate as license to treat all resistance or criticism with authoritarianism. But he could also use his mandate in a novel way: Rather than exclude all his opponents from the policy making process, he could empower them. Only on this basis could he truly solidify the process he can claim to have begun: the emancipation of Algerian political life from the supervision of army commanders under which it has labored since 1992.

The army's neutral posture in the elections and its partial retreat from the political stage is only a first - and incomplete - step. True reform will require the development of political forces capable of filling the space provisionally evacuated by army leaders. This is something that Bouteflika, for all his current popular support, cannot do on his own and to which the civilian opposition and political class, for all its apparent fecklessness, can contribute.

Still reeling from a war that was civil in name only, under threat from terrorist groups for whom Islam is a convenient label, the Algerian people for the last 15 years have been victims of a policy of deliberate secrecy in which visible institutions were devoid of all power while invisible ones enjoyed it all.

There is now an opportunity, however fleeting, to take up the real challenges the country faces. The widespread demand for justice should be met with a thorough reform of the judiciary that includes consecrating its independence as well as its professionalism. Genuine political accountability should be established by empowering the legislative branch, making Algeria's elected assemblies real forums of decision-making. Effective political parties should be developed and pressing social needs should be attended to, above all housing and job creation. Last, but not least, the public graft and the mafia economy that has flourished so brazenly over the last dark decade and more should be reined in.

Whether Bouteflika will do any of this is unclear. Whether he ought to is not. Algeria's voters created a surprise by the size of the mandate they handed him. It is now up to Bouteflika to create an unequivocally welcome surprise of his own by what he chooses to do with it.

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