- Apr 27, 2015
The leader of Algeria's opposition party, Ali Benflis, in Algiers on 24 February. The opposition's demands for constitutional reforms lack the popular support needed to threaten government stability. Source: PA
- One year after modest constitutional reforms were first proposed, their implementation remains stalled due to a boycott by a resurgent opposition movement calling for a radical change to Algeria's political system.
- The parliamentary opposition's ability to gain traction is limited by its inability to engage with the socio-economic issues that most matter to Algerians combined with the popular perception that they are tainted by association with the ruling elite.
- The political opposition lacks the powerbase 'on the streets' to independently threaten government stability or capitalise on civil unrest - likely to increase in the five-year outlook - given Algeria's declining capacity to buy social peace.
Constitutional reform has preoccupied Algeria's domestic political debate since the re-election of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April 2014, spurring increased co-ordination among an opposition that is sceptical of the process delivering substantive change.
The re-election for a fourth term of the ailing 78-year old president prompted an unprecedented coming together of Algeria's political opposition. The main opposition bloc, the Co-ordination for Liberties and Democratic Transition (Coordination pour les Libertés et la Transition Democratique: CLTD), has demanded radical transition to a more transparent and democratic government. The bloc has refused to engage with government-led discussions on a new draft constitution, arguing its participation would legitimise a process designed to adapt and entrench the power of the ruling elite. The vague package of constitutional reforms unveiled by the presidency in May 2014 included the weakening of the presidential system enshrined in the 1996 constitution, and the delegation of increased authority and oversight to parliament. One year on, there are still no details as to how this will be realised.
Limited mobilisation capacity
Despite vocal opposition and the backing of hundreds of prominent political and civil society figures, there is a low likelihood of the CLTD undermining government stability. Most of the parties and civil society groups involved in the bloc are tainted in the public's eyes by their close prior association with the elite. For example, the Islamist Movement of Society for Peace (Mouvement de la société pour la paix: MSP) party, which plays a leading role in the CLTD, was until early 2012 a member of government alongside the ruling National Liberation Front (Front de Liberation Nationale: FLN) and the National Rally for Democracy (Rassemblement National Démocratique: RND). The popular perception that Algeria's opposition politicians are primarily interested in expanding their economic and political power will take several years to overcome, limiting the ability of the CLTD to mobilise popular support behind its transition agenda. This was highlighted on 24 February, when the CLTD's efforts to hold joint protests in Algiers with the southern anti-fracking movement failed, albeit in the face of an unprecedented police deployment of up to 30,000 officers.
More fundamentally, none of Algeria's opposition parties speak for the working classes, the mobilisation of which would be required to pose any serious threat to government stability and pressure genuine political change. This is unlikely to change as long as the opposition focuses its energy on advocating constitutional reforms with which the majority of Algerians, overwhelmingly concerned with bread and butter issues, are not engaged.
The government is likely to seek to widen and exploit existing divisions within the opposition. The CLTD is united largely by the argument that Bouteflika's re-election for a fourth term was illegitimate, and a demand for any constitutional amendment to be put to a referendum. The bloc is divided among those calling for reform of the entire system, and those who merely wish to see Bouteflika removed from office on grounds of ill health.
The role of the army in any transition to democratic civilian governance is also a point of contention for the bloc, although this is likely to be moot. Despite generational pressures within the army and Department of Intelligence and Security (Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité: DRS), they are unlikely to voluntarily dismantle the patronage networks from which they are major beneficiaries, not least while senior generals from the independence era remain influential.
Although Bouteflika has moved to reduce the influence of the DRS through the retirement or replacement of key personnel, there is no indication that the organisation's scope of action has been significantly curtailed. Nonetheless, a 'soft coup' while Bouteflika is in office remains unlikely. Instead, factional rivalries are likely to manifest in corruption investigations against key allies of the president, as seen in the run-up to the 2014 election. This will have attendant risks for businesses associated with these figures, particularly in the energy and construction sectors, once the elite debate over succession recommences in earnest.
Levels of support (and opposition) for meaningful reform of Algeria's political system is likely to vary considerably within Algeria's fractious ruling elite. Nonetheless, the unifying imperative of preserving their shared economic and political interests is likely to dominate. In the probable continued absence of any foundation of popular support, the changes advocated by the CLTD are unlikely to gain traction among the political factions close to the presidency, such as the FLN, RND, and members of the business elite. Instead, the status quo is likely to prevail throughout the remainder of Bouteflika's term, with broad policy continuity likely under a new president chosen as the acceptable public face of the elite. Should the CLTD retain its cohesion and continue to build credibility and capacity, it may be well positioned to capitalise on the upwards trend in civil unrest that IHS forecasts in the five- to 10-year outlook. However, Bouteflika's eventual departure from office will pose a serious challenge to the bloc's unifying rationale, and would probably presage its collapse.
A game changer would come about if Bouteflika swung his support behind the CLTD's manifesto, and forced Algeria on a path to democratic civilian governance. This would split the elite and significantly increase government instability. This scenario is, however, unlikely. Bouteflika's actions to date indicate a desire to prolong the status quo for the benefit of his allies for as long as he is able, and he probably lacks the energy to steer radical reforms at this late stage in his rule. Nonetheless, the core tenets of the CLTD's manifesto could be used by Bouteflika's successor to co-opt the opposition into legitimising a potentially substantive refresh of the system in response to overwhelming social pressure. This would probably occur in the event of widespread social unrest spurred by cuts to social expenditure, the likelihood of which will increase in the five-year outlook as Algeria struggles to economically diversify away from its reliance on declining hydrocarbon revenues.
Co-ordinated Algerian parliamentary opposition's demands for constitutional reforms lack popular support needed to threaten government stability - IHS Jane's 360