Weeks of speculations finally ended this past Friday when the Socialist Forces Front (FFS) announced its participation in the upcoming legislative elections in Algeria. Although multiple press reports have been hinting at that decision for a while, the announcement came as a surprise to many. The FFS has boycotted the last two legislative elections as well as all presidential elections since 1999, so the expectation was that it was going to boycott this round as well.
This decision is of course welcomed by the regime. It immediately brings the legitimacy the government was so desperately seeking for these elections, especially in the eyes of Algeria’s foreign partners. The political parties participating in the elections have also saluted the decision. On the other hand, those calling for an active boycott see this announcement as a disappointment and even a form of betrayal. So far, only one political party, the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) , and former prime minister Sid Ahmed Ghozali (whose political party never received the needed authorization to become active), have openly called for a boycott( see here and here) , but among activists and the general population the mood is definitely leaning toward a boycott even though it is not clear how massive and organized this boycott will be. Turnout was very low during the last presidential (2009) and legislative elections (2007), despite governmental claims to the contrary, and throughout 2011 everyone could witness the extent to which discontent has significantly increased as the social and economical situation of the country has worsened. Participating in the elections is therefore seen as a waste of time that can only play in the hands of the regime, and nothing but a massive boycott would be an appropriate response to an autistic regime.
So the question on everybody’s mind is why this decision?
Since its founding in 1963, the FFS has maintained an uncompromising opposition to the regime, often denouncing the military rule or the political police as it calls it. It participated in the legislative elections of 1991 and 1997, but has boycotted every legislative and presidential elections since then arguing that the process was a fraud. Which curiously did not prevent it from participating in local elections. The FFS was also a major player in the Rome Contract, a failed attempt (the contract was rejected by the government) to find a peaceful resolution of the bloody Algerian conflict in 1995. And its founder/president Hocine Ait Ahmed generally enjoys a great deal of respect among Algerians for his role in the Algerian revolution. But all of this has not prevented suspicions of some kind of back room deal between the FFS and the deciders within the regime from surfacing. The sudden replacement, last November, of the combative First Secretary Karim Tabou by the veteran party member Ali Laskri who uses a more conciliatory language was already viewed as an early sign. Others see this move as a cynical attempt by the party to upend its arch-rival the RCD (both parties count Kabylia as their stronghold) now that the latter has already announced its decision to boycott the elections.
The FFS has been quick to dismiss these accusations. In a letter addressed to the members of the national convention held in Algiers in February Ait Ahmed argues that participating in these elections is a “tactical necessity for the FFS.” Gaining a specific quota of seats in the national assembly is not the primary goal. Instead, he sees this as an opportunity for the party to regroup and to re-energize the Algerian population within the FFS strategy of offering a peaceful democratic alternative to the current regime and “to put some movement back into the status quo.” For his part, Laskri issued a strong rebuttal in a press conference. He referred those who are accusing the FFS of having made a deal with the DRS to the revelations made by Wikileaks about the practices of the Algerian political class and its coziness with the military rulers of the country, and he had sharp words for Ghozali who, Laski reminded his readers, was prime minister when the 1991 elections were held then canceled, and who recently referred to himself as a “Harki” of the system. Laskri also suggested that concerns for the territorial integrity of the nation and its security weighed heavily in the analysis of the party. A thinly veiled reference to Libya and the NATO intervention that is unanimously viewed negatively in Algeria. This is a recurring theme mentioned by most political parties and the government as an incentive for participation in the elections. Sounding defensive about its participation, the FFS has also stressed that it will mount a serious effort to monitor the elections (though no indication was given as to how this will be done) and has indicated that it may pull out should it detect fraud in the process.
Still, the FFS faces an uphill public relations battle and its choice may prove to be risky. Press reports indicate that the consultations carried out by the party have highlighted a split between the base and the leadership. Rank and file militants argued for a boycott, an option that seems more in phase with the general popular sentiment in the country, while the leadership had already made up its mind and decided to participate. An extensive series of video recordings of the debates during the national convention is available here. In an unusual departure from his standard analysis on the subject, Ait Ahmed argued that “no boycott can guarantee that it is a better alternative to participation” . The same argument could have been used in past elections and it is not entirely clear what prompted the FFS to revise its position this time. It remains to be seen whether militants and sympathizers will stick to the party line if the boycott gets more traction within civil society. Although things could shift between now and May 10, the emerging divide seems to pit on one side the general public and non-governmental organizations, and the other the political class (government and all political parties except the RCD.) Could this pose a threat to the FFS just when it tries to revive itself and become more visible on the political scene? Kabylia is likely to be the region where the two options will confront each other the most. With both the RCD and the Movement for the Autonomy of Kabylia (MAK) calling for a boycott, the supporters of the FFS will need a serious effort to mobilize the population and retain the influence they have traditionally exerted in the region. At the national level, the FFS may risk being seen as a party “just like all the others”, attracted by the material rewards the regime bestows on those who do its bidding (in his letter Ait Ahmed himself warned against the powerful attraction exerted by the feeding bowl of the regime). With a decision that seems to go against the flow, the party could alienate civil society, especially the youth, and appear to be an obstacle to the emergence of a citizen movement that could potentially bring to Algeria the radical change expected and demanded by so many in the country.
The FFS has often been praised for its principled positions and the astuteness of its leader, and it was often viewed as a great hope for political change in Algeria. Will May 10 confirm the savvy of the FFS or will it signal the beginning of the decline of the oldest opposition party in Algeria?