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Algeria: Tebboune government announces early elections amid resurgance of Hirak movement protests

In a year marked by the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown measures, the protesters as part of the Hirak movement have largely stayed indoors. However, they seem to have had enough and have en-masse taken to the streets again. They are protesting against the lack of economic and political reforms. The country’s economy, which is heavily dependent on oil exports, continues to struggle. Especially young people are hit hard. Youth unemployment has risen to over 30% and corruption is widespread. Protesters desire change and above all want to see the established elite, backed by the military, gone. President Tebboune is succumbing to the pressure, dissolving parliament, reshuffling his cabinet and calling early elections on June 12.

Bouteflika’s rule of Algeria after the Civil War

The Civil War (1992-2001) which held the country in its grip finally stabilized under the rule of Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The economy started growing again from around the early 2000s and standards of living for most Algerians rose. Important to note is that the growing economy had everything to do with rising oil prices, as oil makes up 90% of the country’s exports and 60% of the government’s revenue. Backed by the country’s military, Bouteflika ruled the country in an authoritarian manner. This despite that one paper Algeria had become a democracy after the Civil War.

Once Bouteflika’s second term came to an end he altered the country’s constitution, which stated that there was a two term limit to the presidency. This allowed him to run for a third term in the 2009 presidential elections, which he decisively won. The opposition regularly boycotted the country’s elections, claiming that they were fraudulent and predetermined. As part of the region’s Arab Spring, protests erupted in Algeria as well in 2011. Cost of living, such as food prices, had grown, leading to widespread unrest. In response to the protests, Bouteflika promised reforms. He altered the constitution and ended the country’s 19-year old “state of emergency”. However, in practice little changed for Algerians.

Hirak movement force out Bouteflika in 2019

Negative sentiments among the Algerian population only grew in the years afterwards. The decreasing oil price from around 2013 had a tremendous impact on the country’s economy and the government’s budget. The government was forced to cut in its expenditures, lowering salaries and subsidies. This happened while costs of living continued to rise. Algeria remains heavily dependent on the import of food. Tensions already rose during the 2017 parliamentary election, which was boycotted by several opposition forces.

When Bouteflika, who at the time was in a wheelchair, was unable to speak due to a stroke and rarely seen in public, officially announced he would run again in the 2019 presidential election, many Algerians had enough. This would have been his fifth term, but considering his physical state, it was quite clear to many who were ruling the country in practice, namely the military. Large scale peaceful protests erupted, calling for the radical change and a complete overhaul of the political system, dubbed the Hirak movement. Bouteflika was forced by the military to step down and the April 2019 planned elections were postponed.

Current Tebboune government elected in 2019

In the months afterwards, thousands of people continued to swarm the streets. Elections were postponed again in the summer and were finally held in December of 2019. The five candidates for the presidency all had links to the regime of Bouteflika, previously working as ministers or working with his cabinets. As a consequence, the elections were boycotted by the Hirak movement and other opposition forces. Former Prime Minister Tebboune was decisively elected, with 57% of the votes. With a historic low voter turnout of just below 40% and 12,6% of votes cast blank or invalid, the legitimacy of Tebboune’s election can be questioned. The Hirak movement was unsatisfied with Tebboune’s promises of a “new Algeria” and “democratic reforms”.

Hirak movement postpone their fight amid COVID-19 pandemic

In early 2020 the Hirak movement protests only grew in size, putting pressure on the newly installed Tebboune-led government. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Algeria in March of 2020, the Hirak movement lifted their siege. Large-scale protests were postponed, declared illegal by the government, but also discouraged by the leaders of the Hirak movement for the sake of public health. Dissent against Tebboune only grew as result of the government’s poor handling of the pandemic and economic downturn. At the end of the year, protesters increasingly felt the need to take to the streets again. This also had everything to do with the December 2020 referendum on the alteration of the constitution.

With the proposed amendment of the constitution, Tebboune hoped to calm down the protesters and show his willingness to political reforms. He claimed the proposed amendment would increase the powers of the parliament. The abolished two-term limit to the presidency would be reintroduced. However, experts stated that the president’s powers would remain much unchanged. The president could still block laws approved by parliament, install judges and appoint the prime minister. In practice Tebboune would be able to rule the country in a similar manner to Bouteflika. As such, the referendum on the amendment was boycotted by the Hirak movement and less than 25% of eligible voters cast their ballots in the referendum.

Tebboune announces early elections due to ongoing protests

In yet another effort to decrease the amount of pressure on his government, considering the ongoing protests, Tebboune dissolved parliament in February 2021. A month later he announced that early elections would take place on June 12. Shortly before he had also promised to reshuffle his cabinet. Two of the newly installed minister were widely considered as part of the old “Bouteflika system”, so protesters were unimpressed. Six other parties have now been invited to the presidential palace to discuss the current political climate. Most notably, he signed a presidential pardon for the release of about 30 detained Hirak protesters.

It shows that Tebboune fears what has happened with Bouteflika in 2019. Tebboune hoped that throughout 2020 widespread dissent would faded away and future protests could be prevented with a crackdown of the Hirak movement. The COVID-19 pandemic allowed the government to impose tighter restrictions, detaining many Hirak leaders. Peaceful online posts and gatherings were monitored by the government as well, while the Hirak movement continued its fight online, organising many Zoom-meetings, Facebook-livestreams and events on other platforms. All of the appeasement and crackdown measures show that the Tebboune government is worried about the Hirak movement’s return. Especially on the Hirak protests’ anniversary, February 22, many Algerians went onto the streets again.

Opposition responses to early elections

The protesters of the Hirak movement are not satisfied with Tebboune’s efforts to “make-up”, as they demand a complete overhaul of politics. Virtually all of the political elite had close ties with the Bouteflika regime. This is the reason many in the Hirak movement want to see all of them gone. Many protesters view the early elections called by Tebboune as a way to prevent actual change from taking place. They are backed by the opposition parties Rally for Culture and Democracy, of Mohcine Belabbas, and the Worker’s Party of Louisa Hanoune. They have also raised their concerns about holding early elections. Abdullah Djaballah, of the opposition party Movement for National Reform, does believe the elections would be an “important tool for change”. Five other parties, including the governing parties, have agreed to participate as well.

It remains to be seen whether the Hirak movement have the initiate radical change and what will happen nearing the June 12 elections. So far the Hirak movement strongly opposes the elections. The problem for the Hirak movement is that it currently lacks leadership. The movement has immense potential, but its influence remains limited without a clear direction. Rallying under a single banner in a unified party could be the solution. In recent months the movement has become more unified in its demands. These include a “negotiated democratic transition”, the “easing of restrictions on speech and media” and a “true separation of powers”. What also can be said about the future is that the political elite and its military allies prefer to initiate a gradual process of change. If its position increasingly comes under threat, when protests continue in such a decisive manner, more concessions by Tebboune are expected.

Sources: AA, Aawsat, Africanews, Aljazeera1, Aljazeera2, Aljazeera3, AP, AtlanticCouncil, BBC, DW, France24, Hrw, MEMO, Reuters1, Reuters2, VoaNews

Image: Wikimedia (Hirak Movement, 2019)