Role of Political Parties

Role of Political Parties

The FLN had traditionally served as the only legal political party in the legislature and the only source of political identification. It controlled all aspects of political participation, including the trade unions and other civil organizations. In the prerevolutionary years, the party served as a source of national unity and mobilized the fight against French colonial domination. Having played such a dominant role in the War of Independence assured the FLN a privileged position in the emerging political configuration, a position preserved in the early constitutions.

The first Algerian constitution in 1963 established a single-party structure for the new nation and recognized the FLN as the single party. The constitution declared the party superior to the state--the party was to design national policy, the state to execute it. Political hegemony did not last long, however. Factional infighting within the party and Boumediene's heavily military-oriented presidency greatly undermined party authority. During most of the 1970s, with the Council of the Revolution as almost the sole political institution and Boumediene's cabinet primarily composed of military officers, the party's political functions were nearly eliminated. The president and his cabinet assumed the party's policy-making initiative; the elimination of the APN basically annulled mobilization responsibilities. The 1976 National Charter and constitution reasserted the party's symbolic and national role but bestowed little additional responsibility. In the late 1970s, with the reemergence of political institutions and elections, the party became again an important political actor. The creation in 1981 of a Political Bureau (or executive arm of the FLN in a communist sense), legislation requiring that all union and mass association leaders be FLN party members, and the extension of party authority resulted in the growth and increased strength of the party until the late 1980s, when its heavily bureaucratic structure came under serious scrutiny.

By the 1980s, the FLN had become discredited by corruption, inefficiency, and a broad generation gap that distanced the wealthy party elite from the realities of daily life for the masses of impoverished young Algerians. The FLN had ceased to be the national "front" its name suggests. Algeria's economic polarization was such that only 5 percent of the population was earning 45 percent of the national income, whereas another 50 percent was earning less than 22 percent of national income. Members of the party elite enjoyed privileged access to foreign capital and goods, were ensured positions at the head of state-owned enterprises, and benefited from corrupt management of state-controlled goods and services. The masses, however, suffered from the increasing unemployment and inflation resulting from government reforms and economic austerity in the mid- to late 1980s. The riots of October 1988 indicated that the FLN had lost legitimacy in the eyes of the masses.

Increasing economic polarization was but one facet of the broadening generation gap. Thirty years after independence, the FLN continued to rely on its links to Algeria's revolutionary past as its primary source of legitimacy, ignoring the fact that for most voters what mattered was not the martyrs of the past but the destitution of contemporary life. Indeed, 70 percent of the population was born after the revolution.

Benjedid's call for constitutional reform began the collapse of the FLN. The 1989 constitution not only eliminated the FLN's monopoly but also abolished all references to the FLN's unique position as party of the avant-garde. The new constitution recognized the FLN's historical role, but the FLN was obliged to compete as any other political party. By mid-1989 the military had recognized the imminent divestiture of the FLN and had begun to distance itself from the party. The resignation of several senior military officers from party membership in March 1989, generally interpreted as a protest against the constitutional revisions, also reflected a strategic maneuver to preserve the military establishment's integrity as guardian of the revolution. Finally, in July 1991 Benjedid himself resigned from the party leadership.

The legalization of political parties in 1989 caused a number of prominent party officials to defect from the FLN in the months that followed, as ministers left to form their own political parties or to join others. A break between the old guard and the reform-minded technocrats dealt the final blow to any FLN aspirations to remain a national front and foreshadowed the party's devastating defeat in the 1990 and 1991 elections. By the time of the coup in January 1992, some factions had even defected to join or lead Islamist parties, including a group that acted in alliance with the FIS.

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