October 3, 2010 § 1 Comment
Who lives there?: About 35 million people. Almost all live on the coast although there are 1.5 million people living in nomadic groups in the Sahara desert. The most commonly spoken language is Arabic and most people describe themselves as Arabs. However it is thought up to 30% of the population understand indigenous Berber languages and French is still widely understood.
How does the system work? (the theory): The president is directly elected every five years by a first past the post election with universal suffrage. Elections are normally not closely contested. Candidates must be approved by the interior ministry.
Executive power rests with the president and is exercised by a Prime Minister and a cabinet the president appoints.
The legislative branch is bicameral. It is explicitly defined in the constitution that the relations between the two houses, and relations between the executive and the legislative be “organic”. In other words Algeria’s constitution explicitly demands that the constitutional arrangements be vague.
The lower house is the National People’s Assembly.389 members are elected every 5 years by closed list proportional representation with 48 multi member constituencies. The system they use to distribute seats slightly over-represents more populous areas: each constituency gets one seat for its first 80,000 electors and one more for each subsequent 40,000. However each constituency is guaranteed five seats so this effect is minimal. All lists need to overcome a 5% threshold to receive any seats.
The upper house is the National Council consisting of 144 members, half of it is re-elected every three years. One third of the council is appointed by the president, the other two thirds are indirectly elected by local councils. They are elected by closed list PR but each constituency (council) only elects two members so it is questionable how proportionate the system really is. Currently the upper house takes upon itself only to consider laws already adopted by the National People’s Assembly, not to amend them, and to only vote then down with a 3/4 majority
Algeria’s system of local government is confusing. On the one hand the provincial governors are appointed by the president, on the other the provincial assemblies are elected by the public (closed list PR) in five year terms. The provincial assemblies govern but the governor “handles their decisions”. At the lower level there are elected communes to govern local areas. Again we have ambiguity: the constitution of Algeria explicitly supports communes but at the same time states that decentralisation, and the exercise of power at the local level, is the function of the National People’s Assembly.
How does the system work? (the practice): Opinions differ as to the extent to which Algeria is a functioning democracy. Impartial assessments of the level of state interference in the electoral process range from “impressively free” to “insultingly rigged” depending upon the election in question. Clearly the army and the political elite who have been in place since the revolution (the National Liberation Front) are able to exert a disproportionate level of influence and exclude those they don’t like from the process. Elections are rarely close, which is a bad sign, but a wide range of political parties have gained representation. Perhaps the biggest question mark surrounding Algeria’s democracy is the exclusion of possibly the most popular opposition party: the Islamic Salvation Front.
How did we get here?: The National Liberation Front, a socialist anti-imperialist group, led the fight against French rule and in 1962 secured the country’s independence. They have been in charge ever since. They initially led the country as a one party state supported by a military junta, but slowly opened up and allowed more elections and greater freedom to opposition parties. By the early 1990s they were holding fully open free and fair elections – a state of affairs which came to an abrupt halt in 1992 when the Islamic Salvation front won the first round of assembly elections. The army promptly stepped in, annulled the elections and banned all religious political parties. Around 200,000 people are thought to have died in the resultant civil war.
By the late 1990s the war was running out of steam, and Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a National Liberation Front man with the support of the army was elected as president. That first election was certainly not a model of freedom and fairness but subsequent elections have been somewhat better and, in accordance with his policy of reconciliation, there has been a gradual reintroduction of political pluralism. He recently amended the constitution, removing term limits.
Who’s in charge?: Bouteflika and the National Liberation Front are still very much in charge. The NLF is by far the largest party in the Assembly (136 seats) and the National Council (54 of the 96 elected members are NLF, I assume the majority of the 48 appointed by the President are too; I can’t find a breakdown for the rest of the National Council anywhere).
The next two largest parties also support Bouteflika: the moderate National Party for Democracy (61 seats in the Assembly, the Prime Minister and the chair of the Council of the nation also belong to this party) which was founded in the mid 90s as both an alternative-to and a continuation-of the FLN (which was thought to be in terminaldecline at the time), and the moderate Islamist party Movement of Society for Peace (formerly named Hamas – although its roots are actually in the Muslim Brotherhood, 52 Assembly seats). Together they form “the Presidents alliance” which commands an outright majority in the assembly with 249 of the 389 seats. These parties are close enough that on occasion Bouteflika has run as a National Party for Democracy candidate as opposed to as an NLF candidate.
The principal opposition parties have a tendency to boycott elections they see as being unfair. Perhaps the largest opposition party is the moderate Islamist Movement for National Renewal. Despite boycotting the last elections they still managed to win 3 seats. Two other major opposition groups did choose to fight the elections: the Trotskyist Workers Party (26 seats) and the secularist pro-Berber Rally for Culture and Democracy (19 seats). Together they form a combined opposition of sorts.
There are a sizeable group (33) of independents in the Assembly. The remaining 58 seats are split amongst 16 minor parties as follows: 21 amongst conservative or nationalist parties (Algerian National Front 13, Party of Algerian Renewal 4, Movement for National Understanding 4), 10 amongst progressive or reformist parties (El Infitah 3, Movement for Youth and Democracy 5, “AHD54” 2), 7 with the environmentalist National Movement for Nature and Development, 5 with the Islamist Islamic Renaissance Movement, 4 with the secularist National Republican Alliance, 1 with the communist Democratic and Social Movement and the remaining 12 with parties whose politics are not easily determinable (National Party for Solidarity and Development 2, National Front of Independents for Understanding 3, Algerian Rally 2, National Movement of Hope 2, Republican Patriotic Rally 2, National Democratic Front 1).
What does it look like?: Much of Algeria is in the Sahara desert, but very few people live there. The majority live by the coast, which looks like much of the rest of the Mediterranean, and in the cool of the coastal hills:
The towns are built in a mixture of styles: French, Arabic and planned-soviet.
What are the issues?: There is a live debate about what the role of Islam should be but after the disastrous wars of the 1990s there is no desire to spill nay more blood over it. Of much greater concern to most Algerians is ensuring that in moving away from the planned economy of the last few decades they gain economically but do not lose their social welfare. Calls from opposition political parties for a national minimum wage were very popular but so far the government has not acted upon them. Algeria’s wealth is predicated upon natural gas and oil deposits; thus far plans to reduce fossil fuel dependency are in their infancy
A good source of impartial information is: Algeria actually has a very good independent free press, but much of it is in French or Arabic. Presse DZ is a good starting point if you speak French. If you don’t then Afrol news has quite good Algeria coverage.
A good book is: Algeria since 1989: Between Terror and Democracy (Global History of the Present) suffers from overemphasising America’s role in proceedings and doesn’t make much use of Arabic sources but is otherwise very good. Between Ballots and Bullets: Algeria’s Transition from Authoritarianism is a little dated now (1998) and fairly heavy but I haven’t seen it bettered for detail
When are the next elections?: Elections for the Assembly are due in 2012, the president has just been re-elected and will be up for election again in 2014.