Democracy Lab

Algeria's New Era

Algeria's long-ruling president is cruising to victory in the polls. But the outside world shouldn't be fooled: The authorities are losing control.

On April 17, 2014, Algerians will head to the polls to vote for their president. Regardless of the actual desires of the electorate, the Algerian military regime that stands behind the 77-year-old incumbent, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, is pushing him towards a fourth term. Counting on his physical inability to rule on his own, they are hoping to keep control over his succession and any subsequent regime change.

The election outcome will not, however, disguise the fact that this ruling configuration is already deep in a transitional crisis. Since the military seized power in a coup in 1992, it has been unable to create legitimate power-sharing mechanisms. Until now, it has mainly relied on tools aimed at maintaining the status quo. The army and the intelligence services have granted wide-ranging powers to the presidency but have in fact continued to govern by proxy. They have granted amnesties to insurgent Islamists with the intent of avoiding a broader reckoning with the traumas of the past. And they have continued to use the redistribution of natural resource rents to corrupt society.

While this strategy probably helped the regime to survive, it now stands in the way of a much-needed renewal. The leadership's focus on retaining power has produced countless problems. Growing street protests and rising inner-regime conflicts are compelling Algeria's rulers to redistribute power yet again in order to stay in place. The sense of crisis is compounded by an imminent generational shift. Bouteflika is too sick to finish his potential fourth mandate. Gaid Salah, the army chief-of-staff, and Tewfik Mediene, the head of the intelligence services, the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS), are 78 and 74, respectively. Whether the transition to come is conducted under the guidance of the army or negotiated with demonstrators, the image of stability Algerian rulers have tried to convey to the international community for so many years can no longer be regarded as a given.

The first big problem that the regime must address is what will replace the all-powerful presidential office. In 1999, the army and the DRS top generals agreed to appoint Bouteflika to the presidency. Thanks to the exploitation of his civilian credentials, they built a governing system that prevented challenges to their questionable legitimacy after the coup d'état they had staged seven years earlier in the wake of a national election that had been won by Islamists. Acting in the name of "peace, reconciliation, and stability," Bouteflika marginalized the parliament, ruled by presidential decree, co-opted the opposition, and revised the constitution to eliminate term limits.

Current elections show that this monopolistic system of presidential governance has made the emergence of a successor impossible. Despite their DRS support, pro-government parties have proved unable to offer an alternative candidate.

The army could, perhaps, choose once again to fill the presidency with a figure who appears, like Bouteflika once did, to stand above the political fray. The leading candidate for such a scenario is Ali Benflis, a former prime minister who has now emerged as Bouteflika's current challenger. But Benflis won't find it easy to give the illusion of new, reformist governance. Bouteflika has multiplied the number of regime clienteles within the bureaucracy, post-civil war businesses, and state-orchestrated "civil society" groups, while simultaneously depriving them of any real political obligations. As a result, these groups focus on the capture of public funds, and show little inclination to make contributions to the renewal of the system.

Moreover, the president's three terms, not to mention the potential fourth, have tarnished the international reputation of Algeria's elections, which is crucial to maintaining the façade of democracy.

Another problem is the unresolved legacy of Algeria's civil war, which officially ended in 1999. Although the regime ultimately succeeded in crushing the Islamist insurgency, the failure to implement a full-fledged truth and reconciliation process has had negative effects on security management. In the early 2000s, the president enacted amnesty policies for former Islamist insurgents while failing to implement any broader transitional justice policies; to the contrary, he explicitly guaranteed the impunity of the security forces. He has also continued the 1990s strategy of the DRS aiming at suppressing any peaceful demonstrations in the name of stability and the fight against terrorism. This alliance between Bouteflika and the DRS is beginning, however, to show signs of strain. Over the past few years, distrust has deepened and competition grown within the security apparatus, leading to major breakdowns, such as a failed suicide attack on Bouteflika in 2007, the assassination of the police chief Ali Tounsi in 2010, the January 2013 terrorist attacks in the town of Tiguentourine, and the leaking of DRS documents on corruption cases involving Bouteflika's entourage.

These cases have escaped the regime's control and are now subject to international investigation. In an effort to regain the upper hand, the president's office recently announced that it had commenced restructuring of the DRS under the supervision of a "neutral and professionalized" army. It is hard to believe government claims, however, that allowing the army to mediate the conflict between Bouteflika and the DRS will solve the problems arising from the intervention of the security forces in the country's political life. Nor will this address the rising crime rate -- a direct consequence of the regime's voluntary weakening of judicial institutions. Smuggling is proliferating, as are kidnappings and deadly tribal clashes like in the southern city of Ghardaia. The security services seem powerless.

The regime's redistribution of rents from the sale of oil and natural gas has enabled it to enlarge its social base. This strategy has led, however, to ever-greater demands for redistribution than can now be met by the government. The lack of transparent rules for the allocation of resources has favored the emergence of corrupt importers and bureaucratic networks that are now competing with the government itself for public funds and the control of informal economies. The government's irrational policies on the awarding of jobs, houses, or subsidies without any attempts to control inflation or speculation are also undermining the regime's legitimacy (which has traditionally derived to a large extent from its status as the arbiter of rents). The government's position is likely to deteriorate further in the years to come, given that oil and gas revenues are set to decline.

The lack of an Arab Spring-style uprising against Bouteflika does not mean that contestation has disappeared. Disillusioned Algerians reject the binary opposition of revolution or pseudo-democracy. They are increasingly resorting to demonstrations, riots, sit-ins, protest marches, uprisings, strikes, hunger strikes, and even immolations; in so doing they are aiming less to overthrow the regime than to create leverage for negotiations. In such ways, they pressure the government to live up to its responsibility to provide public goods, such as local development, health, housing, employment, or safety. The thousands of protests taking place in Algeria each year should be understood as an effort to renegotiate citizenship from the margins and to enforce indirect accountability on unreliable representatives.

Among the most prominent figures of this contestation are non-legalized independent workers' unions. Their strikes can paralyze the country, also undermining the state's argument that it has benefited society by creating massive public sector employment at low wages. The unemployed, as well as a growing number of citizens' groups, have organized numerous demonstrations to draw attention to patterns of injustice as well as to criticize the government's claim that its control is based on the maintenance of stability and the fight against terrorism. The Barakat ("Enough!") Movement is now organizing public demonstrations against both a fourth Bouteflika mandate and the intelligence service's omnipresent role. (The photo above shows Barakat protesters rallying in downtown Algiers on March 27.)

Boycott campaigns (some even organized by Islamist and leftist parties formerly co-opted by the regime) and public demonstrations are intensifying. The opposition is limiting its criticism to Bouteflika, but the majority of the Algerians who plan to abstain from the coming election do not believe that an alternate president will be enough to satisfy their demands.

To calm down protesters and boycotters, the current post-Bouteflika scenario imagined by the regime may consider the option of a controlled transition period outside of electoral mechanisms. In the most likely scenario, Bouteflika could become incapacitated, withdrawing in favor of a challenger who will rule the country in his stead. This adjunct role could go to an army-backed candidate or to a supposedly apolitical new generation of army officers. Whichever group or leader assumes this function may also lead a new transition council that includes parties opposed to a fourth mandate. This approach will give the illusion that both Bouteflika and the head of the DRS (which has rooted in the press it controls the idea that it won't intervene in elections this time) have been marginalized and that the political and social conflicts inherited from the civil war have been resolved. Needless to say, that will not be the case unless there is a clear agreement on the delineation of military and civilian powers, an independent transitional justice process that addresses the numerous outrages experienced by Algerians over the years, and an end to populist economic governance.

The most urgent need now is to allow Algerians to reconnect with each other on the basis of a new transitional pact monitored by neutral and transparent institutions. The United States and the European Union justify their support to Bouteflika and the military by arguing that there is no organized alternative to the current system to ensure stability. They should understand that such an alternative will only be built through an institutionalized process of transparent negotiations and consultation. This needs to be done now, before the current consensus on the need for a nonviolent transition among protesters, opposition parties, and security forces collapses.

FAROUK BATICHE/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Beware of the Pax Mafioso

Corruption plagues many democracies, emerging or otherwise. Here are a few tips for those who want to fight back.

For a two-time mayor in Zilupe, Latvia, the beginning of the end came with mysterious traffic jams. According to Artis Velss, deputy chief of the Latvian State Police, one day in 2009 townspeople began to notice that some trucks trying to cross the nearby Russian border spent days standing idle in queues of up to 4 miles and 2000 vehicles, while others were waved through the "green light" lane with a minimum of fuss. The investigation triggered by that anomaly continues today, and so far it has resulted in the arrest of a mayor and 25 of his associates, including officials from Customs, the State Revenue Service, the Border Guards, and  the State Police, on charges including tax fraud, smuggling, money laundering, bribery, and abuse of official position. According to law enforcement officials who have asked to remain anonymous, the border crossing was used by networks specializing in smuggling between Russia and the European Union. Working with the local authorities, smugglers arranged for a "green corridor" to allow the expedited crossing of illicit goods... for a fee, of course.

Latvia boasts a reformed democracy that has made great strides to limit the influence of the wealthy in politics, encourage the growth of civil society, and secure economic growth. Freedom House ranks it among successfully "consolidated democracies" and the nations that have a truly free press. However, though the government has made genuine efforts to develop a state built on an accountable and responsive political system, it must simultaneously combat the legacy of the former KGB presence, a pervasive lack of transparency across of social and political organizations, and the presence of illicit networks that undermine justice and rule of law.

In Latvia and elsewhere, understanding the relationship between crime networks and democratic governance is deeply challenging, given the inherent complexities and the clandestine nature of these dealings. Illicit networks are deeply engaged in politics around the world not because of ideology, but out of common (business) sense, forging relationships with politicians based on mutual benefit. When criminal networks provide politicians with money and "muscle," they are paid in kind through impunity, lucrative contracts, and favorable regulation. It's a "win-win" equation for everyone -- except citizens, of course, who see their political rights violated and institutions corrupted. While these relations also exist in authoritarian contexts, they do great damage to democracies by weakening key principles of democratic governance such as rule of law, equal exercise of citizenship rights, responsiveness, and transparency.

The challenges of understanding how illicit actors influence political processes and institutions cannot be overstated. Those engaged in these issues -- anti-corruption activists, journalists, and law enforcement agents, among others -- are grappling with a phenomenon that is shadowy by nature, poses a high risk to their personal security, crosses borders, and is often protected by political privilege. In 2010, International IDEA launched its "Protecting Legitimacy in Politics" initiative to include both investigative research and support for national political reform. Through its activities in the Baltic States, Latin America, and West Africa, IDEA has identified several key lessons to help policymakers better analyze and address this growing phenomenon:


1. Don't focus only on "emerging" democracies.

The influence of organized crime is not unique to failed or rogue states. Although illicit interests do take advantage of institutional vacuums, no region or country is immune. A recent report that looked at three EU member states -- Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia -- found high vulnerability to criminal networks. Their borders with Russia, hefty banking sectors, and EU membership make them an attractive hub for smuggling and money laundering. Latvia's recent entrance into the Eurozone is sure to create further challenges for authorities seeking to curb the nexus between organized crime and politicians.

Even the strongest democracies must remain alert to this threat. Consider the city of Sodertalje, just 18 miles from Stockholm, Sweden, which is home to clan-based criminal networks. There, a crime syndicate called "the Network" and its leader, Bernard Khouri, resorted to methods like extortion and assassination to amass influence, while at the same time allegedly impacting politics. The 2010 brutal assassination of two brothers of a local gang leader is a case in point. The murders took place in an illegal gambling house rented out by a powerful local family that includes a parliamentarian. Though perpetrators of the violent acts have been brought to trial, the impact on political structures -- including the influence of clientelism -- is pernicious and far more difficult to address. Stockholm University sociologist Amir Rostami compares Sodertalje to Sicily, noting that "there is a criminal structure that has created... a kind of parallel system... with the ability to affect the regular system of political, economic, cultural, religious and legal spheres.... It is a parallel state that relies on families and feeds and sponges off the official state."


2. Clarify the connections between crime and democracy.

Helping citizens and politicians connect the dots between strong, transparent democratic institutions and reduced vulnerability to illicit networks can help move the issue up the public agenda. Development and democracy practitioners often fail to see the link between their goals and the criminal justice agenda. Though these organizations might have reasons for keeping law enforcement at arm's length, they can benefit from using these agencies' intelligence and calibrate their activities accordingly. In a recent report for the Center on International Cooperation, Camino Kavanagh recommends that development actors carry out political economy assessments that are "organized-crime sensitive" including analysis that addresses five core dimensions: political process, criminal justice system, economic and social policies, civil society and the media, and intelligence gathering and analysis.

Savvy policy entrepreneurs can even take advantage of the media buzz created by high-profile organized crime cases to draw more attention to their democracy or development agenda. If properly regulated and enforced, elements of the political finance framework -- including public disclosure, funding sources, spending/donor caps, and public funding -- may help mitigate the importance of money in elections. The media, however, generally perceive political finance legislation as overly "wonky." If citizens are made to see the threat that corruption and crime pose to democracy, they may better understand that today's shadowy political finance system is the political equivalent of a "gateway drug" to tomorrow's narcostate.


3. Don't view elections as a one-off.

Election campaigns offer the most evident target for illicit influence (fielding and funding of candidates, vote buying, and intimidation and violence against candidates, voters, or journalists). Yet these are not the only areas that are susceptible to corruption. Elections must be seen as multi-year processes.

During the pre-electoral phase, the threat of intrusion by criminal networks must be analyzed and addressed through political finance regulation, security policies, protocols for candidate screening and disclosure requirements, independence of the election commission, development of civil society election monitoring, and media freedom and protection of journalists. The post-electoral period should be used to evaluate the legitimacy of the campaign and propose meaningful reforms to improve the next electoral cycle. Too frequently, election observation missions operate in isolation with little concrete follow-up resulting from their recommendations. As an International IDEA report on election integrity recommends: "It should become common practice that there is in-country, post-election dialogue among international observer groups, domestic observer groups, electoral authorities, and political actors in countries in which elections have been observed." Civil society may also adopt measures to monitor the behavior of elected officials.


4. Pay attention to the local level.

Too often, media attention and reform efforts focus on criminal networks' influence on national actors, such as presidents, parliaments, and parties. Research by Uribe and Villaveces, however, has shown that connections between illicit networks and politicians hinge on "long-term family or friendship ties that often date back to school, or ties developed through shared interests and social associations (country clubs, sport clubs, and the like)." Local institutions are more vulnerable. Honest would-be politicians are often "crowded out" at the local level because they cannot compete with illicitly financed competitors or because of threats and intimidation to themselves or their families.

Although the lack of genuine electoral options may simply result in voter disgust and apathy, it can also provoke action. In 2011, Germán Antonio Londoño Roldán ran unopposed for mayor of Bello, Colombia, representing a political faction accused of links to drug trafficking networks. In response, civil society groups organized a courageous protest campaign and called for voters to cast blank ballots. Outrage was so high that the "none of the above" vote trounced Londoño Roldán 57 percent to 37 percent.


5. Don't let stabilization trump democracy.

World Bank research shows that even the fastest-reforming countries need 15 to 30 years to consolidate institutions. In post-conflict countries, however, the overriding emphasis on stabilization can come at the expense of long-term prospects for democracy. While security is essential, a "peace at any cost" approach -- which may include a push for early elections or investments in "strongman" leaders -- does democracy no favors. Using security threats as their pretext, these leaders may become entrenched before the country has the free media, civil liberties, or unfettered opposition necessary to ensure competitive and transparent politics in the long term. That may leave room for organized crime groups to infiltrate. For example, in Peru in the 1990s, the (legitimate) battle against terrorist group Shining Path was also used to justify the creation of a security apparatus headed by Vladimiro Montesinos, a national security adviser who was outside the normal chain of command, and who later was convicted of various crimes, including trafficking arms to Colombian guerrillas. Police also found 170 kilos of cocaine concealed in the presidential plane, which was due to fly from Peru to Russia.

By the same token, improved security in a country does not necessarily mean defeat for criminal networks. It may simply be that a pax mafioso has taken hold that includes stable markets and territorial control without the need for violence. Conversely, an upswing in violence may signal fragmentation of criminal groups or a reaction to perceived threats from the media, civil society, politicians, or law enforcement in their fight against organized crime.



It's easy to get discouraged in the face of these complex, highly influential illicit organizations. No region is unaffected and these networks have a foothold across diverse economic sectors. At the same time, their potential to engage with politicians in "joint ventures" that subvert democratic processes and institutions is immense. Progress will require concerted efforts between non-traditional allies, cross-border policy coordination, and out-of-the-box thinking. That is a tall order, but with the democratic stakes so high, business as usual is not an option.

AFP PHOTO / ILMARS ZNOTINS