Editor's Note: This assessment is part of a series of analyses supporting Stratfor's upcoming 2019 Second-Quarter Forecast. These assessments are designed to provide more context and in-depth analysis on key developments over the next quarter.
On April 18, Algerians will head to the polls to either re-elect incumbent President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika, or replace him with one of a raft of opposition candidates who have entered the race. But unlike in past elections, there is a small chance that the next presidential contest — and the social unrest that surrounds it — could spur lasting change in Algeria. A weak economy and a political system that is seemingly unable (or unwilling) to strengthen it, have driven a wave of opposition support, increasing the likelihood of unprecedented turnout at the polls and potentially, the streets. But even if this year's presidential race doesn't result in a new government, the next one almost certainly will — as this upcoming election marks just the beginning of a new era in Algerian politics.
Like all North African Arab states, and other major regional oil and gas producers, Algeria is nearing the edge of a long-overdue economic transition. While the country attempts to wean itself away from its dependence on oil and natural gas revenue before global demand reaches its inevitable peak, Algeria's government also now faces increasing pressure from its citizens to better meet their evolving economic and political needs.
Algeria has the second-largest landmass among countries in Africa, along with the largest population among its six Saharan neighbors. With massive military spending fueled by its competition with neighboring Morocco, the country is also home to valuable energy reserves that have provided a steady stream of exports flowing to southern Europe for decades, along with thousands of miles of resource-rich Mediterranean coastline. But despite having all the makings for being a major power in its neighborhood, Algeria has tended to look inward and has taken more of a backseat role in regional affairs — whether in the Saharan, Mediterranean or Middle Eastern neighborhoods or in the larger Arab world.
This isolationist stance is rooted in Algeria’s rocky postcolonial history. The historic oppression in Algeria under the French unraveled into a lengthy, bloody war for independence. The legacy of French colonial control over Algeria’s means of production influenced the oil and natural gas investment regulations it established after independence to maintain Algiers' grasp on its reserves. As a result, Algeria has a tightly state-controlled economy that rejects foreign interference in Algerian affairs. Compared with those of its peers in the broader Middle East and North Africa, Algeria’s system is often considered the most "unfriendly" toward foreign investment in terms of difficulty of engagement. Algeria’s violent political history has also shaped its government today. Its political elite rejects domestic political interference for fear of a reprisal of Algeria’s violent history of contested elections — resulting in a heavily managed and opaque governmental system.
The Political Status Quo
Current President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika is famous for helping guide the country away from its "bloody decade" after taking office in 1999. But now, two decades later, Bouteflika, 81, is hobbled by complications from the stroke he suffered in 2013. His age has spurred a lack of confidence in his ability to guide the country, with a growing number of Algerians viewing the ruler as too sick and too old. Phrases such as "let him rest" and "no to a fifth term" have gained in popularity across Algerian social media.
In making a case for re-election, a written statement from Bouteflika reflected his belief that "continuity is best for Algeria." That communique, like most others issued by the president, was delivered by a proxy (that this has become the main way Bouteflika now communicates has added to Algerians' frustrations). Other political stakeholders are also intent on ensuring that Bouteflika wins in April. The parties in Algeria’s ruling coalition have officially backed Bouteflika, reflecting their anxiety about the change that could result from an unmanaged succession to a leader not allied with the ruling Bouteflika family clan. This includes Bouteflika's National Liberation Front (FLN) — the largest party in the country — and the Democratic National Rally (RND), of which Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia is a member.
Speaking on behalf of Algeria's military, the powerful army leader Gen. Gaid Saleh also expressed support for Bouteflika. Saleh, one of the president's most influential supporters, has worked diligently to keep the military in line behind Bouteflika — he resorted to drastic reshufflings and firings of possible dissidents last year. There is speculation that Saleh is working to shore up his own political support in the face of potential future rivals, such as the president’s brother Saeed Bouteflika. But his actions are nonetheless helping strengthen the incumbent's candidacy.
A Paralyzed Economy
Alergia's ruling government and two leading political parties have been able to achieve relative political stability for the past two decades. However, the country's deepening economic crisis now risks upending its political stasis. The state-backed economy, which depends heavily on energy revenue, suffered a slowdown fueled by the 2014 slump in oil and natural gas prices and the dip in energy export demand from southern Europe that it has yet to rebound from.
This has contributed to a plethora of challenges for Algeria's workforce, which already has trouble accessing educational and employment opportunities due to the country's expansive geography. In addition to a 12 percent unemployment rate, Algeria's labor market is plagued with an even higher rate of youth unemployment (24 percent) as well as chronic underemployment and abysmal participation rates by Algerian women in the workforce. Last year, the International Monetary Fund also ranked Algeria at the bottom among its peers in the Middle East and North Africa as far as public spending efficiency, incorporating factors such as wastefulness, infrastructure quality and control over corruption — which is of particular concern for the 40 percent of the Algerian workforce employed in the public sector.
In efforts to quell the economic anxieties that affect so many of its citizens, the government has yet to implement any long-term reforms and, instead, has tried to get by with short-term fixes, such as printing more money to tackle Algeria's growing debt. But Algerians are clearly growing weary of the situation, as the government's economic mismanagement — compounded by the popular perception of rampant corruption — has now risen as the main rallying cry of a diverse and growing field of political opponents.
Change on the Horizon
The growing discontent with politics as usual has prompted an unusually high number of candidates, parties and political groups to line up to challenge Bouteflika's re-election. Joining the race have been well-known politicians, including former prime minister Ali Benflis and Abdul Razzak Mukri of the Islamist Movement of Society for Peace. Meanwhile, a new civil society group named Mouwatana has been leading public demonstrations and university student discussions focused on challenging Bouteflika’s run for a fifth term. Mouwatana's message has resonated across a variety of social classes and interest groups.
But perhaps most notably, a powerful former military leader, Ali Ghediri, is also challenging Bouteflika. Algeria's armed forces traditionally toe the line behind the ruling government, so Ghediri's defection, therefore, could indicate that military elites aren't necessarily all aligned behind Bouteflika, despite Saleh's efforts.
For the first time in 20 years, there is a path — albeit a narrow one — for an opposition candidate to win the election in Algeria.
Algerian authorities have traditionally silenced political opponents by pressuring state media to slant election coverage in the government's favor. But even that channel is proving less dependable, with Algerian state radio employees recently issuing an unsigned letter stating their refusal to bow to the ruling government's coverage demands. In a likely acknowledgment of the trend, a recent statement released by Bouteflika’s FLN party not only recognized opposition-led demonstrations but called them peaceful — indicating that the government might be modifying its media strategy to avoid further angering Algerians.
A New Era?
For the first time in 20 years, there is a path — albeit a narrow one — for an opposition candidate to win the election in Algeria, especially if street protests continue. Should that happen, a new leader could start to open Algeria's government to the broader world — working more proactively with North African peers such as Morocco and Egypt. A political transition could also make way for new tactics geared toward structurally reforming the economy, as well as more pragmatic approaches to adjusting foreign investment regulations.
With that said, the institutional political machinery in Algeria still favors Bouteflika to win a record fifth term in office. Weak voter participation in recent Algerian elections didn't just reflect disillusionment with Algeria's rulers — but also disdain for the field of available opposition candidates. To win this next election, opposition parties will, therefore, have to find a way to overcome their current fragmentation and unify their efforts. But doing so will be no small feat. A meeting of opposition leaders on Feb. 20 ended without a decision on a consensus candidate.
Regardless of who wins, however, the next election will still reveal the depth of frustration in Algeria around a government that isn’t answering citizens' needs. This will continue to drive momentum for the opposition movement, which will keep pushing for economic and political change long after the votes are tallied in April — meaning that even if Bouteflika captures his fifth term, it will almost certainly be his last.