The Algerian government has billed the country's April 8 presidential election, in which incumbent Abdelaziz Bouteflika defeated five challengers with a reported 83 percent of the vote, as a "turning point" for democratization. The smooth and mostly peaceful conduct of the vote and the 59 percent turnout mark a distinct improvement over the flawed 1999 polls. Yet the sheer magnitude of Bouteflika's victory (the second-place candidate, former prime minister Ali Benflis, polled just eight percent of the vote) and questionable practices in the run-up to the election suggest subtle manipulation of the process. And while Algeria's military maintained an unusually low profile in this election, its officers have not yet withdrawn from their role as the country's ultimate power brokers.
To forestall the allegations of fraud that have marred past elections, Algerian authorities amended the electoral law to promote a cleaner process. The new law ended the requirement that members of the armed forces cast their ballots on military bases, a provision that had exposed the rank-and-file to pressure from the officer corps. To prevent ballot box stuffing and destruction, candidate representatives were allowed to inspect each box at the opening and close of the polls. The number of polling stations was reduced to facilitate vote monitoring by observers and candidate representatives throughout the country. And Algeria's state media provided equal airtime to all candidates during the three-week campaign period.
At the same time, the Algerian state employed several tactics to facilitate the president's re-election. First, in early March, the Constitutional Council rejected the candidacy of Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi, a former government minister with close ties to the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). Ibrahimi was widely considered a strong challenger who could have forced Bouteflika into a second round of voting. The Bouteflika-controlled council ruled that Ibrahimi, who garnered more than one million votes in 1999 even though he withdrew from the race the day before the election, had failed to secure the requisite 75,000 signatures. Second, in violation of regulations concerning the use of state resources for political purposes, for several weeks before the campaign Algeria's state television broadcast a series of paeans to Bouteflika immediately after the evening news, which itself featured extensive positive coverage of the president. Third, the Interior Ministry made it impossible for campaign representatives to verify the accuracy of the voter list. It released the official registry for public scrutiny, but only after voter registration had closed, prompting allegations that electoral authorities had manipulated the list in Bouteflika's favor. As a result of these irregularities, the president's five challengers have declared the election a "sham" and vowed to appeal the results to the Constitutional Council.
In contrast to the military's heavy-handed intervention in previous elections, Chief of Staff General Muhammad Lamari repeatedly declared before the 2004 contest that the military was "ready to accept any candidate, even an Islamist." Lamari's statements, however, do not reflect the officers' waning influence, but rather the security of their behind-the-scenes political power, even as Bouteflika has sought to carve out more powers for his office and reduce those of the army. After almost a decade of civil insurrection, the officers have prevailed in their battle with the opponents of Algeria's military-dominated regime. Recognizing this fact, former members of the FIS's Islamic Salvation Army, which battled the military throughout the 1990s, called upon fellow fighters to support the status quo with a vote for Bouteflika. Furthermore, questions about the sources of legitimacy, power, and authenticity that dominated Algeria's political discourse in the late 1980s and the 1990s have given way to more mundane concerns about economic and social conditions. With no challengers to a political system that essentially preserves the power of the officers, the military is now infused with enough confidence to take a step back from the political arena.
Thus in practical terms the military's declaration of neutrality meant little for this election. Lamari's statement that the officers would accept an Islamist president, were one to be democratically elected, was disingenuous. With the only viable Islamist candidate—Ibrahimi—disqualified under questionable circumstances, the chance of an Islamist victory was remote. Candidate Saad Abdallah Djeballah, leader of the Islamist Al Islah party, secured less than five percent of the vote. Precisely because Djeballah does not command a national following, the officers allowed him to remain in the political arena.
Under these circumstances, Bouteflika's re-election can hardly be seen as a watershed event. While certainly more pluralistic than presidential balloting elsewhere in the region, Algeria's election is not likely to spur a process of democratization. Rather, the country will enter a period of relative quiet during which policy will be focused on economic development and on enhancing Bouteflika's efforts to reintegrate Algeria into the international community.
Steven A. Cook is a Next Generation Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.