American University

Authoritarians Fight to the Death by Gwenyth Szabo

Authoritarians do not just cling to power, they fight for it until their very last breath. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is one of the many authoritarians currently ruling, and with elections coming up, he is working to guarantee his power for a fifth term despite serious health issues. Massive student protests (the largest since 2011) have erupted to contest Bouteflika’s continued rule, but Bouteflika is not alone. Authoritarian President Nicolas Maduro is another authoritarian facing a strong opposition from a dissatisfied population.

In fact, Algeria and Venezuela share similar historical and economic contexts, but Venezuela has had two authoritarians, while Algeria has only had one. Hugo Chavez (Venezuela’s prior ruler to Maduro) and Bouteflika provided peace and prosperity during a historic time of crisis in their countries, and they used this popularity to ascend to power and construct authoritarian regimes.

In the case of Venezuela, mistrust for political parties and economic turmoil made Chavez, an outsider viewed as separate from the corrupt party system, a popular candidate for president. The Venezuelan economy had shifted from the formal sector to the informal sector, which left them unrepresented in the government (Smilde 39). Chavez used Venezuela’s large oil wealth to provide government subsidies and economic prosperity to the informal working sector. In other words, Chavez responded to Venezuela’s civil unrest through clientelism, where he offered benefits to the informal economic sector in exchange for support. His approach succeeded in helping those in need, but in 2014, the price of oil dropped, drying up Venezuelan funds, and stripping Chavez’s supporters of their subsidies. After Chavez’s death in 2013, Nicolas Maduro took over, but the oil crisis perpetuated economic unrest, which the government brutally crushed. Since then, Venezuela is still facing economic catastrophe from the oil drop, and Maduro is facing a strong, new opposition lead by Juan Guaido, who is backed by a large part of the international community.

On the other hand, in the 1990’s, Algeria was trapped in a bloody civil war where over 200,000 people were killed. Bouteflika earned admiration after ending the 10-year conflict and eliminating the radical Islamist movement. When Bouteflika, backed by the military, was elected to power in 1999, heorchestrated a peace accord, finally ceasing the violence. Like Chavez, Bouteflika maintained peace throughout most of his 20-year term through clientelism. For example, in 2011, pressure from the Arab Spring ignited uprisings within the country, following Tunisia’s lead; however, Bouteflika responded by dropping food prices and offering economic relief. His ability to ease Arab Spring tensions originated from these economic favors, while other MENA countries failed to appease protesters’ economic demands.

Ultimately, while Venezuela saw a change of power in 2013, Bouteflika, now in his early eighties, has endured and has been clinging to his power since suffering a stroke in 2013, affecting his speech and robbing him of his ability to walk. Both Algeria and Venezuela are strong oil suppliers and earn the majority of their revenue from these hydrocarbon exports, but in 2014, Algeria, like Venezuela, suffered a drop in oil prices. As a result, Algeria suffers from high youth unemployment and only a 2.7% forecasted growth that will not be enough to help the population’s unemployment. The oil crisis in both countries exposed the government’s inability to maintain its clientelism, and without the resources to continue clientelism, both governments face serious civil unrest.

But the authoritarian mechanisms are still in place and thriving. Bouteflika has maintained his long-lasting authoritarian rule with frequent health treatments at medical care facilities in Europe. He has consistently solidified his presidency with 90% of the vote, a statistic dismissed by human rights organizations which recognize the elections as fake. Fake elections and an ineffective national assembly are typical characteristics of authoritarianism, allowing Bouteflika to maintain his power. Strict state restrictions on media and outlawing protests in 2001 are also major measures to quell any dissent, and they have been successful as Bouteflika has ruled for 2 decades.

When Bouteflika announced his plans to run for a fifth term, massive protests erupted. Over 200 journalists took to the streets in the initial outbreak, angered by the state’s strong censorship and their inability to report on the elections. Not only are protesters demanding for the president to step down, but they are asking for an entire regime change. Under authoritarian rule, a change in president can often simply be symbolic, for the institutions and mechanisms maintaining the ruling party’s power do not change, only the spokesman does. But these protests have taken Algeria by surprise, and initially, despite several arrests, most of the people were immediately released. However, as protests have continued, adding university students, the government has responded severely, implementing tear gas and water cannons to disperse protest disruption.

In order to challenge Bouteflika, a candidate must have 60,000 signatures to compete. So far, six candidates are registered to run, but no candidate has come forward to unify the movements. Rachid Nekkaz, an Algerian businessman with a strong youth backing, is one potential candidate. He even renounced his French citizenship to run in for president, but he has faced relentless repression from the police, such as illegally being placed under house arrest. Restricting electoral opponents through government institutions is another sign of Algeria’s strong authoritarianism. Unlike Venezuela, where the international community and the Venezuelan opposition have decidedly supported Juan Guaido, Algeria still awaits a reaction from the international community.

The future of the Algerian protests and the results of the April 18 election are uncertain. Today, Bouteflika announced that if he wins the election, he will hold a referendum on a new constitution and call an early election, but protesters are not satisfied. As conditions become more violent, it is possible the government could silence the dissent completely and allow Bouteflika to rule until he likely passes away from poor health. On the other hand, if protests persist and find a suitable opponent, it’s possible Algeria could face the identical situation as Venezuela with Maduro and Guaido. Bouteflika’s offer is a sign that the protests are making a difference, but Middle East North African authoritarian regimes have mastered the art of measured reform by allowing liberal-appearing legislation or concessions while failing to implement any true mechanisms for enforcing the new legislation. Authoritarians are determined to endure, and Bouteflika especially has highlighted his strength and willingness to fight until his death.

Smilde, David. “The Social Structure of Hugo Chavez.” American Sociological Association, vol. 7, no. 1, 2008, pp. 38-43.

Photo by RYAD KRAMDI, “‘Ballot box’ to decide if ailing Algeria president gets 5th term,” (Yahoo: Finance), AFP Photo.

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