Algeria has just held what have been widely appraised as free and fair elections, following a decade-long civil war between military and Islamist factions which left as many as 150,000 dead.
Algeria’s political development reflects a frequent pattern in the region.
A single-party socialist state held power since independence with the support of the military, and had left the imams as its only credible opposition. The clerics and their supporters, looking to Iran as a model of Islamic democracy, in turn swept parliamentary elections when the government finally attempted to adopt liberal reforms amid criticism and economic failure in 1991. With the Islamic Salvation Front promising to adopt Shar’ia and easily having gained the requisite two-thirds majority to amend the constitution, the military stepped in to cancel the election’s result and outlaw the ISF.
Algeria’s civil war followed.
Holding on to power, the military-backed government banned members of the Islamic Salvation Front from taking part in politics and amended the Constitution to prohibit the formation of political parties based on religious belief. It also successfully encouraged formation of moderate Islamic parties to draw away much of the radicals’ support, a major such party being the Movement of the Society for Peace.
With the Islamist parties successfully marginalised, Abdelaziz Bouteflika ('Abd al-'Aziz Abu Tifliqa) was handily reelected (campaign website). Bouteflika, who enjoys the support of the military, was a leader in the Algerian War of Independence and also a former foreign minister.
The lesson to be learned from Algeria’s experience of democratization, some analysts say, is that in 1991 the country picked the wrong moment to open the doors to pluralism and then opened them too wide. This year, these observers say, reflected a more wisely chosen moment for holding elections, and a restriction of participation to parties which supported liberal democracy.
Liberal democracy still remains weak in Algeria - nearly three-quarters of Algeria's population is under the age of 30, and half of those below the age of 25 are unemployed. The Islamist movement enjoys particularly broad support among young unemployed males, and among the state’s greatest challenges will be to find a way to secure their support for, and participation within, the liberal democratic system.