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Algeria is going to the polls in June: Is this victory for the Hirak Movement?

March 25, 2021 at 9:08 am

Police officers block the road as Algerian anti-government protesters take the streets of the capital Algiers within “Hirak” pro-democracy movement demonstrations in Algeria on 1 March 2021. [Mousaab Rouibi – Anadolu Agency]

In a televised speech on 11 March, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune dissolved the lower house of parliament, the People’s National Assembly, triggering new legislative elections. However, he did not specify an election date. The country’s constitution dictates that polling must occur within three months after the national assembly is dissolved. That deadline could be extended by another three months if, for any reason, elections could not be held the first time. Thus, if everything goes according to plan, elections are likely to take place on 12 June this year.

The current assembly was elected in 2017 for a five-year term ending next year, but the president wants an earlier vote to accelerate the reforms he has embarked on since taking office nearly two years ago.

At the same time, President Tebboune has ordered the release of around 60 activists. Most were jailed between February 2019 and last year, for organising and taking part in the Hirak Rif Movement – leaderless mass protests that erupted across Algeria on 22 February, 2019, calling for a complete overhaul of the country’s political system.

Tebboune’s speech sounded conciliatory in tone in an attempt to win over Hirak activists by announcing a government reshuffle that saw five ministers lose their jobs for “underperforming”. He also praised the movement by declaring “Hirak saved Algeria”, sending an anti-corruption message, a key Hirak demand, by keeping the minister of justice in his position. Minister Belkacem Bagmati is credited with the fierce anti-corruption drive against the old elite associated with former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Tebboune won the 2019 presidential elections pledging a new national assembly, fighting corruption, transparency and accountability. These are some of the Hirak Movement’s top demands.

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As president, he now promises “corruption-free” elections managed by the country’s independent election authority without any interference, “not even from the president”. Attempting to encourage the younger generations into politics, he promises them financial support to cover their election campaign expenses.

Earlier this month, the long-awaited election law came into force, paving the way for Algerian youth to freely and easily contest the upcoming national elections and limit the influence of political money. The new bill banned hate speech and all foreign donations to political campaigns, in an effort to eradicate election corruption. However, the bill exempted Algerian expats’ financial contributions as long as they are within certain limits. It caps the individual contribution to a maximum of DZD 400,000, or less than $3,000.

The 2017 legislative elections were marred by allegations of fraud enabled by wealthy individuals, some of whom ended up in jail due to the president’s attempt to clean up the political elite by eliminating the influence of the old guard and corrupt former officials. These reform measures came just one day before the second anniversary of the Hirak Movement – a clear manoeuvre to avoid street protests.

Thousands of people gather to stage a demonstration as part of the second anniversary of Hirak movement, in Algiers, Algeria on 19 March 2021. [Mousaab Rouibi - Anadolu Agency]

Thousands of people gather to stage a demonstration as part of the second anniversary of Hirak movement, in Algiers, Algeria on 19 March 2021. [Mousaab Rouibi – Anadolu Agency]

But on the following day, on 22 February, the anniversary was commemorated with more street marches, which had only paused in the past year because of the COVID-19 pandemic – another crisis facing Algeria.

Earlier this year, Tebboune signed into law the new constitutional amendments limiting presidential terms to two terms, while trimming the president’s powers. Much of the executive power now rests with the prime minister rather than the president. This is a major departure from the country’s six-decade system giving the military-backed president almost absolute power over the executive.

Turnout for the upcoming legislative elections, whenever they take place, will be more like a referendum on Tebboune’s policies and the man himself. This is a president who came into office in a publicly boycotted election, amid cheating allegations in a highly-charged political atmosphere. The coming vote for him is a welcomed extra dose of political legitimacy.

The 2019 presidential elections that Tebboune won saw a historically low turnout. Only 40 per cent of eligible voters bothered to cast their votes, thanks to the citizens’ boycott. It was estimated that only six out of every ten eligible voters voted. Back then, as today, the country was in the grip of public discontentment and almost daily demonstrations. Hirak’s top demand has always been the complete revamp of the entire political system, doing away with the old military-political elite that dominated Algeria since its independence in 1962.

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Tebboune, for his own elections, promised more work opportunities for the under-30 youth, who comprise more than half of the country’s population. The president spent much of his first year in office in and out of hospital for COVID-19 treatment. He is now trying to make up for lost time by speeding up his agenda.

Despite lacking leadership, a precise political plan and a clear vision, the Hirak Movement succeeded in forcing change on otherwise static Algerian politics. The amended constitution, for one, could not have been hatched had it not been for the Hirak Movement and the momentum it created in the country’s politics. The new election law and strong anti-corruption drive could only have been possible because of the citizens’ consistent rejection of the status quo.

One of the big problems facing Algeria today is high unemployment rates, particularly among youth and first-time job-seekers. As of last year, unemployment among youth was estimated to be around 30 per cent. This is a complicated issue to tackle, given the current economic slowdown because of the pandemic.

Whether President Tebboune will be seen as Algeria’s saviour or just another disguised military-backed figure is yet to be seen in the next elections. The upcoming vote will also test his political skills to the limit. One key area that certainly worries him is the economy and unemployment figures.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.