As elections go, the one in Algeria on Thursday was a — what’s the term? — humdinger. Five candidates, electorate of over 20 millions, estimated valid ballots, 301. But you know what I mean.
“Hinky Dink” Kenna, who used to observe that “Chicago ain’t ready for reform” from his seat on the city council (when he wasn’t holding court at the news stand, which was his day job and somehow made him a millionaire), would have said, “That’s a wee bit over the top, ya know?”
Compared to the exercise the same day in the land of hope and glory that gave the world parliamentary democracy, Algeria’s presidential election tells us not necessarily that the country is not ready for reform but that reform is still — 60 years into independence — dependent on whoever holds the power. At best, it might be argued that the army, which took over from a dysfunctional government last April and proceeded to promise and the renege on scheduled elections, means to maintain order in preparation for a meaningful constitutional convention. But the prognosis by observers is for a continuing standoff between what remains of the old regime — buttressed by the army — and disorganized protesters.
The silver lining, according to one observer, is that the low turnout may be a sign of extreme fraud fatigue. The Algerians have been participating in, or holding their noses during, rigged elections since at least 1948, when the governor-general, Marcel-Edmond Naegelen, put the fix in so that the enlarged franchise that included an allegedly substantial Muslim bloc would still return a majority in favor of the colonial regime.
Strictly speaking, it was not a colonial regime. Algeria was a part of France, with representatives at the Chamber of Deputies in Paris as well as local assemblies. It was these that were at issue back then, as Naegelen, a top Socialist who favored integrating the Muslim population after decades of being treated like wogs, was organizing a dual–Electoral College system that he viewed as a first step toward citizenship.
It never happened, but armed rebellion soon did. And while much was positive in what Algeria inherited from France after a bitter decade of insurgency and terror, good government would not be high on the list.
The Chicago case reminds us that bad political habits linger, but the city’s dynamism in other areas compensated, and still does, for much that seems wrong to government reform types, who often have problems of their own, e.g., David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel. In Algeria, by contrast, the confiscation of political power by successive factions and clans was accompanied by economic control by authoritarian socialists and crony insiders — a dismal development model in a country that once was Rome’s breadbasket and more recently was a leading exporter of oil and natural gas.
Food and energy are valuable, but real wealth comes from people, and Algeria has been draining brains for decades the way California soon will, a net loss and a sad one because the country has possibilities beyond counting, including a good climate and attractive location. Probably the key mistake, which French do-gooders like Naeglen inadvertently encouraged, was to choose, following independence — or secession — from France, a kind of Jacobin uniformity over the region’s religious and ethno-tribal diversity.
The incumbent president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who fought in the French war as a teen and was foreign minister under the dictator Houari Boumédiène, announced he would run for a fifth term. He was feeble and not at the top of his game at all — there was a rumor he was, in fact, non compos, and during the campaign he was represented by a gigantic poster (which is more honest than the acting done by Democrats in our current pre-campaign), and in fact spent most of the campaign in a Geneva hospital. By his own constitution he was limited to two terms, so he was already rather out of date.
When the election was put off on spurious technicalities, including the lack of any credible opposition candidate, the frustrations of years of stagnation following years of gruesome war against Islamists, which itself had followed the years of single-party Islamo-Stalinoid dictatorship, boiled over. The hirak movement brought hundreds of thousands, millions, into the streets of Algiers and other cities and towns. Thursday’s election, organized on orders from the Army Chief Ahmed Gaid Salah, was declared a farce by the hirakists. There has been, in a year of protests and marches, almost no violence.
Gen. Salah was promoted to army chief and received the defense portfolio from Bouteflika, who purged the long-serving army and security leaders who had brought him to power. But Salah is no yes-man. He announced Bouteflika was retiring when the joke got stale and proceeded to clean house. Affairistes, roughly “oligarchs” in plain English, the guys who had the sweet connections and combines, fled the country or were arrested on charges of corruption and larceny. Bouteflika loyalists, including ex–prime ministers, were hauled into court and sentenced to prison terms. The president’s brother, rumored to be the real string-puller, was tried back in September on sedition charges — conspiring against the army — along with some once-all-powerful security chiefs.
But the hirak continues. Thursday’s winner, Abdelmajid Tebboune, took under 60 percent of the ballots by about a third of eligible voters. He is a recent prime minister who avoided the army’s fall-guy list, and the reasonable guess is that the Gen. Salah now will say, “Recess over.” That is all we know now, but will he be heard? There were reportedly a million people in the street the next day to tell him and Mr. Tebboune they are not amused.
The U.S. State Department is standing by, mum. This would be the prudent policy. For Algerians, it is a bittersweet sort of victory: goal, but no points. Or if you prefer, something happened, but no one is sure what. If they — soldiers and protesters both — can hold on through the winter and agree to design a new republic, they may have a spring — an Arabo-Berber Spring — and another chance to make Algeria. All previous attempts failed.