Algeria Holds Its First Free Multiparty Elections Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The municipal elections held in Algeria in June, 1990, were the first permitted by the ruling party, the Front for National Liberation, since the nation gained independence from France in 1962.

Summary of Event

The foundations of modern Algeria were laid by the French, who occupied the country in 1830 and declared it an integral part of France in 1848. French colonists lived mainly along the Mediterranean coast, and the indigenous Muslims—Arabs and Berbers—were largely concentrated in the interior. Algeria;elections (1990) Elections;Algeria Democracy;Algeria [kw]Algeria Holds Its First Free Multiparty Elections (June 12, 1990) [kw]Multiparty Elections, Algeria Holds Its First Free (June 12, 1990) [kw]Elections, Algeria Holds Its First Free Multiparty (June 12, 1990) Algeria;elections (1990) Elections;Algeria Democracy;Algeria [g]Africa;June 12, 1990: Algeria Holds Its First Free Multiparty Elections[07740] [g]Algeria;June 12, 1990: Algeria Holds Its First Free Multiparty Elections[07740] [c]Government and politics;June 12, 1990: Algeria Holds Its First Free Multiparty Elections[07740] [c]Civil rights and liberties;June 12, 1990: Algeria Holds Its First Free Multiparty Elections[07740] Madani, Abassi Belhadj, Ali Bendjedid, Chadli

In November, 1954, Algerian Muslim nationalists who were organized under the National Liberation Front National Liberation Front (Algeria) (known in French as the Front de Libération Nationale, or FLN) launched an armed struggle for independence against French colonialism. Muslims;Algeria After nearly eight years of war that took the lives of more than one million Algerians, the FLN revolutionaries and French president Charles de Gaulle negotiated agreements that led to Algeria’s independence under FLN domination in 1962. Ahmed Ben Bella, Ben Bella, Ahmed one of the revolution’s leaders, was chosen president and nationalized foreign holdings. In 1965, Ben Bella was overthrown by his defense minister, Colonel Houari Boumédienne, Boumédienne, Houari who continued the one-party FLN socialist rule until his death in December, 1978. Boumédienne was succeeded by Colonel Chadli Bendjedid, who was known as a pragmatist and a compromise leader.

Algeria’s evolution to secularism, before and after independence in 1962, is largely attributable to French cultural influence. During the colonial era, the French had become a dominant factor in every aspect of Algerian society. As late as 1990, French television and radio programming was widely seen and heard in Algeria, and numerous Algerians traveled freely to France. Nevertheless, despite French secular influence and rapid industrial growth during the 1960’s and 1970’s, large segments of the population had become disenchanted with the FLN under Bendjedid, with the economic decline, and with the government’s sociopolitical policies. In October, 1988, after food shortages led to large-scale riots, the ruling FLN was pressured to surrender its monopoly on power and institute democratic reforms. During the riots, thousands of young protesters had been wounded and at least one hundred were killed. A new Algerian constitution was approved on February 23, 1989, opening the way to a multiparty political system.

On June 12, 1990, the country’s first free municipal election took place. Eleven political parties participated in this historic event, chief among which were the FLN; the religious fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front Islamic Salvation Front (Algeria) (in French, Front Islamique du Salut, or FIS), led by Abassi Madani, a professor of philosophy, and his second in command, Ali Belhadj; and the secular Rally for Culture and Democracy Rally for Culture and Democracy (Algeria) (RCD). The results were stunning: The FIS won a majority of the municipal seats in the country’s four largest cities—Algiers, Oran, Constantine, and Annaba. The FIS received 65 percent of the popular vote and won 55 percent of fifteen thousand municipal posts throughout Algeria. It won representation in thirty-two of the forty-eight provinces.

In part, support for the FIS was influenced by a growing admiration in the Arab-Muslim world for Islamic fundamentalist leaders in the wake of the revolution in Iran in the late 1970’s and the parliamentary victory achieved in 1990 by the Muslim Brotherhood Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, not to mention political gains achieved by such forces in Turkey, Tunisia, and Morocco. Economic factors, however, were equally if not more crucial. When asked what motivated them to support the FIS, numerous voters responded that they backed the Islamists out of revenge against the FLN. The New York Times reported on June 25, 1990, that many Algerians used the vote to protest against low salaries, spiraling inflation, and promotions that were given only to those with connections to the FLN. Many contended that the economic choices for young people in Algeria during the 1980’s and in 1990 were limited: to remain unemployed and celibate because jobs were unavailable and apartments in short supply, to work in the trabendos (black markets) and risk being arrested, to try to emigrate to France to sweep the streets of Paris and Marseilles, or to join the FIS and vote for Islam.

In other words, it should not be ruled out that the vote for the fundamentalists was less a massive support for the FIS than a reaction against what voters regarded as the FLN’s record of authoritarian rule and economic mismanagement and corruption. Whether they agreed with the FIS or not, many Algerians, it seems, were content in 1990 with the difference the free ballot had made in their lives. In Algiers, the sense of enthusiasm after the elections was similar to that usually manifested in the wake of a national revolution.

Its electoral successes notwithstanding, the FIS was somewhat vague from the outset about its objectives. It is known, however, that Abassi Madani struck an alliance with local merchants and espoused a free market economy to replace the FLN’s state socialism. Both Madani and Belhadj described a woman’s primary role as rearing a family and supported limiting women’s employment to jobs such as nursing and teaching. The local and provincial municipal councils, which serve five-year terms, have jurisdiction over such matters as renewal of liquor licenses, the types of activities allowed at cultural centers, and the issuance of permits to build mosques. Madani and Belhadj vehemently opposed public drinking, any form of dancing, and secular programming in the media.

Ethnically, the backing of the FIS came from the Arab population, which constituted at least 70 percent of the total Algerian Sunni Muslim population of approximately 25 million. The Berber Muslims, as well as the ethnically mixed Arab-Berber populations, were not necessarily behind the FIS. Both the FLN and FIS had been challenged by the Kabyles, members of the largest, most important Berber tribe. As French colonial rule was drawing to an end during the early 1960’s, Kabyle bands carried out the most daring assaults on the French. After 1962, the Kabyles also confronted the Algerian FLN regime in the name of their Berber heritage, demanding political freedom and the kind of administrative autonomy the Kurds in Iraq sought from Saddam Hussein. Their party, the Rally for Culture and Democracy, gained 8 percent of the municipal vote in the June 12, 1990, elections, but the potential for increased electoral support among Berbers was possible once national and parliamentary elections took place. Their attachment to Berber culture and opposition to the advocacy for greater Arabization by the Arab majority threatened to increase political turmoil.

The political headway made by the FIS, Berber cultural and political reaffirmation, and the proliferation of political parties during and immediately following the 1990 elections prompted political observers in Algeria and the Arab world to speculate whether the FLN regime, which still controlled the parliament, the cabinet, the army, and the media, would react to its electoral setbacks by suppressing the freedoms it had granted to the opposition from 1988 to 1990. In fact, when Madani urged the government to permit national and parliamentary elections to take place, the regime in the summer of 1990 did not rule out such a possibility but evinced concern, warning that it would reject attempts to bring Islam back to an era of political opportunism.


The historic event of free elections and their outcome in Algeria hardly evoked enthusiasm in the West and in secular Algerian or other Arab circles. On the contrary, great concern arose regarding the political and social stability of the country. In France, political extremists such as Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the French National Front, warned that the French government would have to contend with the integration of many more thousands of Algerians who opposed the FIS and might flee Algeria out of fear that an Islamic regime would emerge there.

Political moderates in Europe also feared that the rise of the FIS would pose a grave population problem for the Mediterranean countries of Western Europe, which in the late 1980’s had struggled to absorb an estimated four million legal and illegal North African immigrants. It appeared to Western diplomats and to moderate Middle Eastern and North African regimes that the democratic movement in Algeria produced something radically different from what it had produced in Eastern Europe and Latin America: a brand of anti-Western Muslim fundamentalism. The FIS, the beneficiary of democratic elections, paradoxically did not believe in democracy and freedom.

General parliamentary elections were scheduled for June 27, 1991, one year after the municipal elections had partially reshaped Algerian political life. During that year, more political parties and movements mushroomed in the country, challenging the FLN and the FIS simultaneously. One such party was the Socialist Forces Front Socialist Forces Front (Algeria) (FFS), led by Hocine Ait Ahmad, Ahmad, Hocine Ait a hero of the 1954-1962 war of liberation against the French. Many years before, Ahmad had turned against the FLN, leading running battles against the regime. Moreover, as the campaign of strikes and demonstrations led by the FIS intensified in May and early June of 1991, the authorities imposed martial law on June 5, and the elections did not take place as scheduled. Martial law;Algeria

On Sunday, June 30, Madani and Belhadj were arrested after questioning the need for continued martial law and calling for immediate parliamentary elections. The headquarters of the FIS in Algiers was surrounded by the National Guard. Before his arrest, Madani urged his supporters to confront the authorities for having violated the basic political freedoms granted the year before.

The New York Times reported on July 2 that upon arresting Madani and Belhadj, the Algerian military charged them with “armed conspiracy against the security of the state” and said they would face trial. Since the beginning of demonstrations and clashes two months earlier, forty people had been killed and more than three hundred wounded. The army had arrested at least seven hundred people in a systematic roundup of political opponents. This was only the beginning of a long period of full-fledged insurgency as the FIS turned to violence against military rule and often against innocent civilians. In the period 1992-1998, which was the active phase of the rebellion, an estimated one hundred thousand people were killed, many in indiscriminate and brutal massacres by FIS extremists.

From 1998 to 2000, the government gradually suppressed the resistance, and the armed branch of the FIS disbanded in January, 2000, although sporadic violence continued. Abdelaziz Bouteflika was installed as president in 1999 after a dubious election, but he won reelection by a wide margin in 2004. Although greater stability had been achieved by then, Algeria still faced serious economic and social problems, an ongoing Berber autonomy movement, and an uncertain future. Even given the uncertainty remaining, however, it is clear that the 1990 municipal elections raised expectations among Algeria’s once-dormant political forces. Algeria;elections (1990) Elections;Algeria Democracy;Algeria

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beck, Eldad. “The Kabyle Factor: The ’Kurds of Algeria’ Lead Parallel Bids for Berber Rights.” Jerusalem Report Magazine 2 (June, 1991): 32-33. Presents a concise, informative analysis of the impact of the 1990 elections and their aftermath.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bennoune, Mahfoud. The Making of Contemporary Algeria: 1830-1987. 1988. Reprint. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. One of the most comprehensive histories of Algerian political, social, and industrial development available. Provides thorough discussion of the period of French colonial rule and events since independence in 1962 through the Bendjedid era. Includes tables and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Entelis, John P. Algeria: The Revolution Institutionalized. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1986. Focuses on the successes achieved, especially by the Boumédienne regime (1965-1978), in promoting economic and industrial expansion as well as a standard of living superior to other Arab nations. Presents an overly optimistic analysis of internal domestic affairs, precluding changes in the status quo.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gordon, David C. The Passing of French Algeria. London: Oxford University Press, 1966. Standard history in English of the Algerian revolution, its aftermath, and FLN rule. Analyzes the internal upheavals of the newly instituted socialist political and economic systems and delves into the major issues faced by the young leadership during the 1960’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Knauss, Peter R. The Persistence of Patriarchy: Class, Gender, and Ideology in Twentieth Century Algeria. New York: Praeger, 1987. Extensive study of Algerian internal affairs and political hierarchies provides general context for understanding of the 1990 elections. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Martinez, Luis. The Algerian Civil War, 1990-1998. Translated by Jonathan Derrick. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. Presents an interpretive history of the war between Islamic forces and the Algerian military. Includes chronology, map, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Quandt, William B. Revolution and Political Leadership: Algeria, 1954-1968. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1969. One of the best works in English on the Algerian political system under Ahmed Ben Bella and Houari Boumédienne, by one of the world’s leading Middle East experts. Includes comprehensive bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Willis, Michael. The Islamist Challenge in Algeria: A Political History. New York: New York University Press, 1996. Presents a comprehensive study of the role of Islam in contemporary Algerian politics. Particularly informative concerning the period 1990-1996. Includes glossary, bibliography, and index.

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