In 1951, the US Congress ratified an amendment to the Constitution limiting presidents to two terms of service. As many countries across the world at the time were falling prey to authoritarian regimes, Americans understood that in a true democracy, no single person should rule—whether elected or not—forever. Unfortunately, the world is still plagued by dictators, who increasingly use the “elections” to justify years, or even decades, of unchecked power.
The Polisario Front, operating a pseudo-state of refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria, is one such example. It regularly holds elections for its leadership; the thing is, the same person always wins – and has for more than 37 years.
Despite all its grandstanding about having created some sort of model system, the Polisario fails in even the most basic aspects of governance. It operates a one-party dictatorship under the rule of Mohamed Abdelaziz, who was elected secretary-general and “president” in August 1976 and has reigned ever since – longer even than Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. Though ministers, ambassadors, and public officials are shifted around from various posts here and there, the core leadership of the Polisario has also remained virtually unchanged, dominated by a select group of individuals loyal to Abdelaziz.
That might be because the centralization of power in the executive is written into the very “Constitution” the Polisario uses to support its democratic claims. According to the “Constitution” – the “chief of state” appoints and dismisses the “prime minister,” appoints all military and civil officials including governors, judges, and security personnel, and is even in charge of the national secretariat responsible for election laws and voting oversight to elect…you guessed it, the “chief of state.” Not to mention that the Polisario is the only “allowed” political party per the “Constitution.
This form of authoritarian rule means egregious conditions for the Sahrawi population living in the camps. Restrictions on civil liberties and human rights abuses are commonplace. Freedom of association and freedom of movement are limited, primarily in order to exert social control. Freedom of the press and freedom of speech are non-existent — the Polisario suppresses any form of dissent, labeling any defectors and dissidents pro-Moroccan traitors and accusing them of inciting tribalism.
And to cap it all off, Sahrawis in the camps have no recourse to justice for violations of their rights. Neither the “legislative” nor the “judicial branch” work to ensure the balance of powers and there is little evidence that the courts have been used for anything but furthering the Polisario’s own power at the expense of the population. In fact, the Polisario maintains its own penal code and judicial and detention facilities, which are used to consistently violate the human rights of the refugee population and deny them redress of any grievances in the Algerian court system.
Today, as many of us cast our votes at the polls, we must remember to remain vigilant against leaders who hold sham elections to ensure that only one name and one party remain in power.
Jordan Paul is Executive Director of the Moroccan American Center for Policy