Algeria’s Political Parties Largely Splinter Groups

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A mother and her son watch a speech of Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika broadcasted on national TV, in Algiers on 9 February 2012. (Photo: AFP - Farouk Batiche)

By: Mourad Traboulsi

Published Tuesday, February 21, 2012

It’s not by chance that a host of new groups emerged to contest the forthcoming elections. The regime and its agencies are past masters in the dark arts of political divide-and-rule.

Algiers – The Algerian authorities have recently authorized the establishment of about 20 new political parties in advance of the forthcoming parliamentary elections in May.

All of these are splinter groups which broke off when other established political parties fell apart. There is little new about any of them, either in terms of programs or faces.

Political parties in Algeria have long had a tendency to “explode.” That was the fate that befell the once-powerful Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) and Socialist Vanguard Party (PAGS). The Islamist Ennahda and Eslah movements also had similar fates, not to mention the former ruling party the National Liberation Front (FLN).

Algeria’s security agencies have always sought to undermine and dismember parties that have become a perceived irritant to the regime, due to their capacity to organize, generate ideas, and attract followers.

This applies to the Marxist PAGS, the successor to the Algerian Communist Party. In its heyday in the 1970s, it had a huge following in the country’s universities and controlled key trade unions. Many of Algeria’s best-known writers, intellectuals, academics, film-makers, and playwrights belonged to its various social, cultural, and professional associations. The party also held influence over national economic and social development plans, after aligning itself with the so-called “revolutionary democrats” in the regime of former President Houari Boumediene.

Today, the former PAGS is divided into four entities, each claiming to be the original party and successor to its revolutionary legacy, and each accusing the others of being renegades.

A leadership struggle came to a head at a party conference in Algiers in 1993 when the outcome of the delegates’ vote in party leadership elections was scandalously disregarded. The resulting split quickly filtered down into the party’s middle and lower ranks. Journalists working on the party newspaper walked out en masse, forcing it to suspend publication.

One group of the party’s leaders headed by Abdelkader Cherkou left and formed the Contemporary Algerians’ Front. Another headed by Abdelhamid ben-Zein formed the Algerian Party for Socialism and Democracy. A third faction became the Ettehadi party. The party’s former Secetary-General Sadek Hadjeres and some of his acolytes left for France and tried unsuccessfully to launch a new organization from there.

Many of players involved came to regret the collapse of the “smart party” after they saw the consequences of the breakup and appreciated what a folly it had been. They realized that state security agencies had engineered the party’s demise and that the Islamists had benefited as a result.

But the Islamists’ turn was to come. The security agencies turned their attention to Abdallah Djaballah, founder of the Ennahda party, after he won his party 34 seats in the 1997 parliamentary elections. Other figures and MPs mounted a revolt against Djaballah, deposed him from his leadership position and expelled him from the party. They were rewarded with a decree from the interior ministry officially authorizing them to take over all the party’s property, and some were appointed to government posts.

Djaballah went on to found the National Reform Movement or Eslah. It contested the 2002 parliamentary elections and won 43 seats, becoming the biggest Islamist political group in the country. But some of Djaballah’s aides again turned against him with the assistance of the interior ministry. Once more, he was stripped of his party membership, and they were rewarded with posts.

Djaballah is now contesting this year’s May elections with a new party called the Justice and Development Front.

As for the former ruling FLN, it has had eight changes of leadership in the 50 years since it led Algeria to independence. Not one leader has become the FLN leader smoothly, or as a result of a vote and a democratic contest. Leaders were invariably replaced by means of internal party coups, most of them hatched by the security agencies.

The last of these was in the autumn of 2003, against former prime minister and FLN Secretary-General Ali Benflis. The authorities rejected the outcome of a conference vote to elect him to a second term as head of the party, and supported a rival faction led by Abdelaziz Belkhadem, the current FLN secretary-general.

Benflis was deposed because he nominated a rival to compete against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika at the April 2004 presidential elections.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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