The Decline of Islamist Parties

La décision des partis islamistes de boycotter le prochaine élection présidentielle en Algérie est le signe de leur influence déclinante, écrit Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck, du Carnegie Endowment for Peace.

At a January 27 press conference for the Movement of Society for Peace (MSP), Algeria’s main Islamist political party, the party’s leader, Abderrezak Makri, announced that his party will be boycotting the upcoming Algerian presidential elections scheduled for April 2014. Makri explained that although the party is capable of putting forward a strong candidate, its electoral base doesn’t wish to see the party engaged in what they feel will be a predetermined election—a charade that will only serve to legitimize the candidate of le pouvoir. Other Algerian Islamist parties, like Ennahda or El Islah, would probably follow the MSP’s lead given their disinterest and lack of strategy. A few months ahead of the presidential elections—and despite their pronouncements—the Islamists have not only proven unprepared but also unable to rally behind a consensus candidate. This is a strong indication that they lack a real electoral future.

The Islamists have not rallied around a successful candidate for the presidential elections in over ten years. Unsuccessful Islamist candidates included Abdallah Djaballah, who ran as an independent in 1999 before his rapid withdrawal from the race. Djaballah’s second attempt, as El Islah’s candidate during the 2004 presidential elections, wasn’t promising either ; his run yielded only 5 percent of the vote. In 2009, Djahi Younsi from El Islah ran for the elections and obtained an inconsequential 1.37 percent of the vote ; that marked the Islamists’ last attempt to compete in presidential elections.

Since 1995, most Islamist parties have sought to distance themselves from the radical movements of the civil war and have adopted a participationist strategy. Following the defeat of the radical Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria’s civil war in 1990s, they reintegrated themselves into the political arena, but their ranks have been roiled by personal and ideological disputes. Much of these disputes can be traced back to the 2009 presidential elections. The Islamist parties’ strategies during these elections, and their subsequent results, led to a crisis within the MSP that resulted in a number of breakoffs and the emergence of smaller offshoot parties. Aboudjera Soltani, the leader of the MSP at the time, had decided to take part in the government coalition and support President Bouteflika’s candidacy, which proved a disastrous strategy for the party. This decision led to a power struggle between Soltani and Abdelmadjid Menasra, Soltani’s number two, and his supporters blamed Soltani for making major concessions to the government—including supporting the constitutional amendment that allowed President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to seek a third term—without buy-in from its base.

Those opposed to Soltani’s choices felt the party was losing its core convictions—although it was still fundamentally conservative, it no longer sought the establishment of Islamic state. Soltani was also accused of marginalizing the party leaders who were not on his side : a group of 40 of them was ousted from the party in 2008 during its fourth conference, in which Soltani was re-elected for a second term. The party reached a breaking point in 2009 when Menasra decided to leave the MSP in order to create his own party, the Movement for Preaching and Change (MPC). In addition to the hundreds of supporters and activists (including 564 women) who followed Menasra to the MPC, several Popular Communal Assembly presidents, delegates mayors, elected officials from the Popular Provincial Assembly, members of local councils, and even 28 of the MSP’s 51 members of parliament opposed the government coalition by making their exit. The departure of a significant section of its high-ranking members left the MSP severely weakened and competing with the MPC for popular support.

Similar divides have also since plagued other Islamist parties, including the Ennahda Party, highlighting the critical question facing these parties : whether to work with the ruling party or not. Created in 1989 as the Movement of Islamic Nahda and inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood, the party was torn in the late 1990s by an internal war between Lahbib Adami, a party leader who called for dialogue with the government, and Abdallah Djaballah, one of the founders and a fervent opponent of the regime. Djaballah boycotted the 1995 presidential elections and refused to take part in the government coalition in 1997. In 1998 he was overthrown and replaced by Adami, who changed the name of the party to Ennahda and the party line from opposition to collaboration, which allowed the party to enter the corridors of power.

Meanwhile, Djaballah created a new Islamist party called El Islah from which, once again, he would be ousted and replaced by Djahid Younsi. Younsi blamed Djaballah for imposing "incoherent" and "archaic" views on the party and for a lack of structure and organization. Undeterred, once more Djaballah created a third party on February 10, 2012, called the Front for Justice and Development (El Adala), which espouses an Islamist-reformist line. The creation of other smaller Islamist parties, such as the Rally of Algerian Hope (TAJ) and the National Building Movement, has also added to the proliferation of Islamist parties. The first, created by MSP defector and Minister of Public Works Amar Ghoul in 2012, has a national-Islamist line ; the second was formed by Mustapha Belmehdi, formerly a member of the MPC (renamed the Front for National Change in April 2011), who split off to lead the National Building Movement in March 2013. Despite their multiplication, the parties failed to offer solid ideological visions or practical platforms around which any significant section of the Algerian population could rally.

Weakened by the ongoing splintering, some Islamist parties decided to join forces to achieve optimal results in the 2012 legislative elections. To that end, in January 2012 the MSP withdrew from the Algerian presidential alliance it had joined in February 2004 to form a political union with Ennahda and El Islah called the Green Algeria Alliance (AAV). Algerian Islamists believed this coalition and the successes of the Muslim Brotherhood in neighboring countries—the Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt, Ennahda in Tunisia, and the Party for Justice and Development in Morocco—would all benefit them at home. The tripartite Islamist coalition members foresaw a significant victory. Soltani (from the MSP) predicted, “the coalition will be credited 22-25 percent of the vote,” and Ennahda’s Fatah Rabiai talked about some 120 out of 462 seats to be secured.

Yet the Islamists were crushed in the legislative elections : the AAV secured only 48 seats, fewer than the 52 seats the MSP had achieved on its own in the previous parliamentary election of 2007. Instead of questioning their strategy, Islamists accused the leading National Liberation Front (FLN) and the government of "manipulation" and "fraud." The main loser was undoubtedly the MSP. Indeed, it not only lost the elections, but also its ticket to re-enter the presidential alliance and a significant portion of its supporters, who were deeply disappointed with the results and who did not back the party’s withdrawal from the presidential alliance. This meant that TAJ succeeded in convincing about fifty MPs and over 2,000 newly elected local officials to join its ranks.

These disagreements, conflicts of interest, mutual accusations, divisions, and lack of consensus within the Islamist movement have had a disastrous effect on their electoral base. The current situation differs dramatically from that of the 1990s. Back then, and despite the heterogeneous character of the movement, the leading Islamist party (the Islamic Salvation Front) was able to rally millions of Algerians behind its two figureheads, Abassi Madani and Ali Belhadj, as shown by their landslide victory in the 1991 legislative elections. Today, the Islamist movement is discredited, weak, and unable to mobilize supporters. Because it was incapable of formulating clear objectives and goals, Algerians turned away from the Islamist movement. The Islamist electorate is crumbling, as attested by the results of legislative elections and more recent municipal elections on November 29, 2012. In these local elections, the AAV (now without the MSP, which withdrew from the coalition after the May 2012 legislative elections) secured an absolute majority in only 10 out of 1541 municipalities. These results are the worst they’ve achieved since the advent of the multi-party system in Algeria. One can only predict their ultimate failure in the upcoming presidential elections, should they present a candidate.

Moreover, the decision by some Islamist parties to boycott the elections (claiming the process is potentially rigged) is likely an excuse to avoid yet another setback, and it fails to hide the fragmentation, divisions, and lack of leadership within the current Islamist movement as a whole. Their inability to formulate a clear strategy, as a movement or as individual parties, has cost them support on the ground. Meanwhile, shaken by over ten years of armed conflict between armed Islamist groups and security forces that left over 150,000 victims and more than 6,000 missing, many Algerians fear an Islamist party could lead the country to another “black decade.” The images from Egypt and Syria serve as painful reminders, and the belief that a vote for the Islamists will not be the solution to Algeria’s problems seems to have only strengthened.