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Algerians vote for stability

An Algerian woman casts her ballot during the presidential election at a polling station in Algiers, Algeria, April 17, 2014.(Mohamed Messara/EPA)
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Thursday, Algerians go to the polls for presidential elections. Few, if any, seasoned observers think the outcome is in doubt: Abdelaziz Bouteflika will secure a fourth five-year term as president. The real drama took place earlier this year when Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal made the surprising announcement that Bouteflika would stand again, despite being out of the public eye since suffering a stroke in 2013. Now, having survived the events of the Arab Spring, it appears Bouteflika and his regime will remain securely in power in the years to come.

How have Bouteflika and the regime managed to survive the Arab Spring, and what are the prospects for the future? Data from three nationally representative public opinion surveys conducted as part of the Arab Barometer project shed light on these questions. The surveys reveal that although most Algerians are dissatisfied with the regime, they are much more satisfied than they were in the months following the Arab Spring. Now, unlike in early 2011, the vast majority of citizens want gradual reform, suggesting the public’s appetite for mass anti-regime protests has declined.

In the early months of the Arab Spring, some speculated Algeria might be the next regime to fall. Algeria’s economic and political situation closely mirrored the same toxic combination that felled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt: high unemployment, especially among the young, and a closed and unresponsive political system. The findings of an Arab Barometer survey carried out from March through April 2011 – about three months after the fall of the Tunisian regime – confirm that Algeria was a country on edge; 32 percent of Algerians said the economic situation was good or very good, while 8 percent said the same about the state of democracy and human rights.

What accounts for these dramatic shifts? First, the Algerian regime took modest steps following the Arab Spring to address some of the problems facing ordinary Algerians. In early 2011 the regime gave public servants a 34 percent raise and boosted subsidies for basic commodities. The regime also lifted the long-standing state of emergency law, in effect for nearly two decades, and passed a set of modest reforms including new laws governing the media and political parties.

Second, the government has pursued a number of high profile corruption cases, including one against the former energy minister, Chakib Khelil. This campaign against corruption – regardless of the motivation – appears to be having its intended effect. In 2011, 90 percent of Algerians said that there is corruption within state agencies, but only 41 percent of these individuals said the government was working to eliminate it to a significant extent. By comparison, in 2013 just 78 percent said corruption was a problem in the government while 52 percent of these citizens said the government was taking serious steps to eliminate it.

Perhaps more even importantly, Algerians have observed the aftermath of the dramatic changes in Tunisia and Egypt following their revolutions. Political instability in both countries contributed to economic contractions in 2011 and instances of political violence and terrorist activity increased. In contrast, Algeria’s political stability has yielded slow but steady economic growth, and the regime’s campaign against radical groups has been largely successful. As such, most Algerians are now content to skip the radical changes brought about by the Arab Spring. In 2013, more than three-quarters of Algerians preferred reform to take place gradually rather than all at once, a 24-point increase from 2011.

On Election Day, the majority of Algerians will likely stay home as they did during the legislative elections of 2012 and the presidential election of 2009. Most remain unsatisfied with the regime and the situation in the country. At the same time, there appears to be an increasing sense that the existing system is better than any of the viable alternatives. Thus, although Algerians have little enthusiasm for reelecting Bouteflika, the regime he leads is likely to remain entrenched in the years to come.

Michael Robbins is the director of the Arab Barometer. His work on Arab public opinion, political Islam, and political parties has been published in Comparative Political Studies, the Journal of Conflict Resolution, and the Journal of Democracy. Follow him on Twitter: @mdhrobbins. The Arab Barometer (@arabbarometer) has its operational base at the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan working in close collaboration with Princeton University, the University of Michigan, the Arab Reform Initiative, and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. Some findings from this article were included in the report “Skipping the Arab Spring?” published by the Arab Reform Initiative.