Page last updated at 10:54 GMT, Thursday, 5 March 2009

The face of Algerian politics

Two Algerian men

By Mohammed Arezki Himeur
BBC Focus On Africa Magazine, Algeria

Algeria's ruling party has dominated the country for almost half a century and that is unlikely to change in April's presidential elections.

Parliament has voted to change the constitution to let President Abdelaziz Bouteflika seek a third term in office.

Some refer to the National Liberation Front (FLN) as "The Invincible".

Others even compare it to the Seven-Headed Hydra, a monster of Greek mythology - if it loses one head, it has still got six to fight with.

The FLN is not only a party, but also the state.

A political monopoly

The FLN led the struggle for liberation from 1954 to 1962 and since then, because of its revolutionary credentials, has monopolised almost all things political.

For a long time opponents of the FLN ran the risk of being accused of betraying Algeria's national interests.

Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algiers, 29 October 2008
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is seeking a third term

From the start of the liberation war, the FLN imposed a clear rule, any fighters joining its ranks could only represent themselves.

Joining as members of another organisation whose values they would represent within the FLN was prohibited.

Only one party tried to oppose FLN rule - the Movement of Algerian Nationalists - which was defeated after a bloody struggle.

During the war a number of leadership battles shook the FLN - in particular between military chiefs fighting within the country and political leaders in exile, most notably in Morocco and Tunisia.

Losers in those battles were at best excluded from the party, but at worst executed.


After independence in 1962, and for the next 25 years, those attempting to launch their own movements to counter FLN domination failed.

Two Algerian women
The FLN dismissed its citizens as not being mature enough for democracy
Organisations like the Communist Party, created in 1936, were banned.

A one-party system was imposed and a witch-hunt launched against any suspected opponents.

Under President Ahmed Ben Bella's rule, the FLN also banned several newspapers and sent activists to jail.

In the following decades, the FLN turned its dogma into Algeria's only legal ideology and presented itself as the overarching "guide" of the Algerian people, effectively dismissing citizens as not being mature enough for democracy.

In the 1970s, the party invented the concept of "Responsible Democracy" through which members could moderately criticise the FLN, as long as their views did not target the party leadership, the party line or any official above them in the party hierarchy.

To do otherwise could seriously damage one's career prospects.

But things started to change and the lid of rising resentment was blown off in the 1988 anti-government riots.

Soon afterwards, the FLN suffered heavy defeats during the country's first multi-party elections in 1991, but the party had seen it coming.

'Baby born with a moustache'

In 1989, sensing that they were far from popular, FLN members created a myriad of political groupings, without any popular base.

This prompted Algerians to describe their country as having a "60-party one-party system".

The largest movement created in such a way was the National Democratic Rally (RND) which was just a front for FLN cadres and members during the civil war against Islamists in the 1990s.

At the time, Algerians said that "the baby RND" was "miraculously born with a moustache".

It may have been a brand new party but it had a fully functioning electoral machine.

Indeed the RND won the parliamentary and local elections in 1997, the hydra had lost a head, and was using one of its spare ones.

Unsurprisingly, in 2000 the RND lost its majority in parliament to the FLN and retreated to the wings, waiting to lend support to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's attempt at a third term.

The FLN is also the standard bearer of the so-called "Revolutionary Family" of influential organisations, like the Association of the Liberation War Veterans and used by the party to strengthen its hold on the country's institutions.

Many Algerians believe that there is little chance for true democracy to take hold as long as the FLN behaves as if it is the state itself.

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