Bouteflika’s constitutional reforms: Never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity
By: La Septieme Wilaya
In mid-April 2011, president Bouteflika gave a speech in which he outlined bold and serious constitutional reforms. That speech came after months of silence, and was very much awaited by most Algerians as well as foreign policy analysts who were eager to assess Algeria’s reaction to the events that were taking place in the Arab world.
Among the reforms outlined by the president in that speech were: reforming the electoral system; reforming the structure of the party system; expanding and deepening the devolution of power or decentralization; and redefining the legal status of the Wilaya.
The question was never about whether the president could propose some constitutional reforms. The question was and has always been about whether the president and his entourage of corrupt generals could conduct and implement the outlined reforms in the most rational, legal and inclusive manner. To do this, there are two methods. The first one is based on a serious popular deliberation in which all major political actors representing all major ideological tendencies have an input into the deliberative process of reforms. Of course, these constitutional reforms could not have been fully representative and deliberative without popular input—i.e., without holding popular deliberative meetings throughout the country to hear people’s worries, visions, and desires. It is these practices that embed democracy in everyday practices and educate the people about the deliberative democratic process.
The second method is not deliberative, is not representative, and is not legitimate. It consists in establishing a blue-ribbon commission composed of insiders who conduct hearings of a few well-selected politicians whose sole existence is to protect and maintain the status quo. Briefly stated, it is a masquerade ball wrapped in a veneer of deliberation and representation. Which method was going to be selected determined whether the reforms outlined by the president would lead to the establishment of democracy and the rule of law in Algeria. Moreover, which method was going to be selected determined the seriousness and the will of Bouteflika and the generals in seeing democratic reforms take place in Algeria and clearly signaling a breakaway from competitive supra-authoritarianism. And here enters the commission for democratic reforms headed by Bensalah, the president of the Senat.
Bensalah’s commission—as it has come to be known—was a sham. It was a charade of a commission. For almost 2 months, the commissions listened to all the insiders—to all the clients of the Algerian state. Not only did it ignore to invite and consult with major political parties such as the FFS, it also ignored to invite and/or consult with leading political figures such as Ait Ahmed, Ali Yahia Abdenour, and/or the former presidents. It never bothered to listen to the Algeria people. It never bothered to embrace and start a deliberative process, which is at the heart of the democratic theory, and invite the Algerian people to it. This commission whose job is to propose a set of reforms to the constitution in order to deepen democracy and strengthen the rule of law conducted its business in the most undemocratic way possible. It was a window display for clientelism and patronage. It was the despicable act of a dying dictatorship attempting for the last time to save its skin and reinforce its grip on power. Ergo, there is nothing to write home about. This commission and the resulting proposals will have no meaning, no impact, and no legitimacy.
See, there are a few constants in life as in politics. One of those constants is that dictatorship and authoritarian regimes never last forever. One day or another, they will collapse. They all collapsed before and they will keep collapsing. The trash bin of history is full of the names and corpses of dictators. Of course, how a dictatorship collapses is more important than whether it collapses. The Algerian military establishment—in fact, it is not the entire military establishment, but a handful of powerful generals who have total control over the political and economic resources of the country—had a golden opportunity to lead Algeria toward the 21st century. They had the chance to be the initiators of democracy in Algeria. In fact, they had the chance and the choice to be heroes in the eyes of the Algerian people. They turned their back on democracy, on the Algerian people, and on history. As I am writing these words, I am certain that their fall will be one of the most atrocious in the history of democratic transition. They will enter history, but from its back door and straight into its trash bin.