Democratization, October 1988-January 11, 1992

Democratization, October 1988-January 11, 1992

Benjedid is given credit for responding to the country's most extensive and destructive riots since independence with political liberalization rather than suppression. For the next two years, dramatic upheavals of the political system marked the opening up of the political arena to public participation. The reasons for Benjedid's response are variously seen as a means of furthering his own political ambitions by altering the political configuration in his favor, a sincere commitment to political reform and democratic ideals, or a desperate effort to regain the political initiative. Most likely, the impetus for reform was a combination of all three factors.

In the weeks following the strikes, Benjedid tried to distance himself from the party and the old guard. He dismissed Prime Minister Mohamed Cherif Messadia, as well as the head of military security and a number of other officials associated with the most conservative factions of the FLN and the military. The noticeable absence of FLN party cadres in the new technocratic government presaged the president's own departure from the FLN leadership. On November 3, 1988, a number of earlier proposed reforms were approved in a national referendum, and plans for revisions of the national constitution were announced. The reforms included separation of party and state, free representation in local and national elections, and some redefinition of the executive powers.

The new constitution, accepted by national referendum in February 1989, marked the most significant changes in the ideological and political framework of the country since independence. The ideological commitment to socialism embodied in earlier constitutions was missing, and the new document formalized the political separation of the FLN and the state apparatus. The 1989 constitution allowed for the creation and participation of competitive political associations, further strengthened executive powers, diminished the role of the military in the political triangle, and only briefly alluded to the historical role of the FLN.

Subsequent legislation formally legalized political parties and established a system of proportional representation in preparation for the country's first multiparty elections. Proportional representation was intended to benefit the FLN, but the new electoral code did the exact opposite, magnifying the plurality of the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut--FIS) in the local and regional elections of June 12, 1990. The FIS, competing with more than twelve political parties and numerous independent candidates in the country's first multiparty elections, captured the greatest share of the anti-FLN/antiregime protest vote. The elections were officially boycotted by the Berber Front of Socialist Forces (Front des Forces Socialistes-- FFS) and Ben Bella's Movement for Democracy in Algeria (Mouvement pour la Démocratie en Algérie--MDA), along with a number of smaller opposition parties. About 65 percent of the eligible voters participated in the elections. The high turnout undoubtedly benefited the FIS, which as the largest, and possibly the only, plausible challenge to the FLN received a good percentage of its mandate as antiregime backlash. It has been argued, however, that the 35 percent abstention rate resulted largely from a deliberate political choice. Ethnic enclaves, especially in the Berber region where voters might have been expected to support such boycotting parties as the FFS, had some of the lowest turnouts in the country, at around 20 percent.

Despite the devastating defeat dealt to the ruling party, the June 1990 results went undisputed by the government, and the new council members assumed their positions. The date for national legislative elections was advanced to the following June, and the country appeared well on its way toward achieving the region's first multiparty system to transfer power peacefully to an opposition party. Then on June 5, 1991, as campaigning opened for the country's first national multiparty elections, the process came to a rapid halt as public demonstrations erupted against the government's March electoral reforms favoring the ruling party. The president called in the army to restore order, declared martial law, dismissed the government, and indefinitely postponed parliamentary elections.

Three months earlier, in March 1991, the government had presented and passed a bill reminiscent of crude gerrymandering. The bill increased the number of parliamentary seats while altering their distribution to achieve over-representation in rural areas, where the FLN's base of support rested. The bill also created a two-round voting system--if no party received an absolute majority in the first round, only the top two candidates would participate in a second round runoff. The likely candidates in such a runoff would be the FIS and the FLN. The FLN anticipated that the general public, faced with only two choices, would favor the FLN's more traditional and secular platform over a party that represented Islamism. The remaining parties, it was thought, would win seats in parliament in their regional strongholds but would be marginalized, each expected to win no more than 10 percent of the vote.

Nearly every political party responded to this distortion of the electoral process. The FIS decried the targeting of the Islamist party by laws prohibiting the use of mosques and schools for political purposes and laws severely restricting proxy voting by husbands for their wives. The FFS and many other secular opposition parties denounced the electoral changes as leaving only "a choice between a police state and a fundamentalist state."

On May 25 the FIS called for a general strike. Tensions escalated, and by early June the military was called in for the first time since October 1988 to suppress mass protests and enforce martial law. Specifically targeting Islamists, the military arrested thousands of protesters, among them FIS leaders Abbassi Madani and Ali Benhadj (also seen as Belhadj), who were later tried and sentenced to twelve years in prison. The military also took advantage of the situation to reassert its influence in politics, calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Mouloud Hamrouche and his cabinet. The new caretaker government consisted largely of technocrats, a conservative elite drawn from the top ranks of the civil service and former state-owned enterprises. Sid Ahmed Ghozali, until then minister of foreign affairs and a former head of the state-owned gas and oil company, was named prime minister.

The Ghozali government distanced itself from the FLN party cadres while remaining subservient to the military. The FLN, meanwhile, broke into several factions. Benjedid resigned from the party leadership in July, alienating any remaining factions in the party that supported his regime. In September 1991, the state of emergency was lifted and new elections were set for December 1991 and January 1992.

Two months before the start of the elections, in October 1991, the government issued a new electoral law whose bias was hardly better disguised than that of the March reforms that had provoked the initial demonstrations in June. The law increased the number of seats in the assembly, redistributed them to favor FLN strongholds, and omitted earlier provisions facilitating the participation of independent candidates. Moreover, most of the FIS political leadership was in prison (Madani and Benhadj had been joined by the remaining six members of the majlis ash shura, the FIS ruling council) and all newspapers were banned. Once again, the government sought to ensure that the results of the elections would be to its, and the military's, liking.

Nearly fifty political parties participated in the first round of the elections on December 26, 1991. The result was another clear victory for the FIS and an equally clear humiliation for the FLN, which once again performed poorly. The FIS appeared certain of achieving the two-thirds parliamentary majority necessary for constitutional reform. Its next closest competitor was the FFS, followed by the FLN as a distant third. With nearly 200 seats to be decided in runoff elections set for January 16, 1992, it appeared certain that a transfer of parliamentary power to the opposition was imminent.

The military, however, quickly affirmed its unwillingness to see power transferred to a political party it regarded as a threat to the security and stability of the state. Calling the government's position toward the Islamists "accommodating," the army called for the president's resignation and the suspension of the scheduled second round of elections.


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