Algerian president Bouteflika declares ‘race to power’ open

Bouteflika urged politicians from various parties to prepare for an open and pluralist presidential elections.
Friday 13/04/2018
Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika at a polling station in Algiers last November. (AFP)
Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika at a polling station in Algiers last November. (AFP)

TUNIS - Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s powerful allies had repeated in recent months that his election to a fifth 5-year term in 2019 was a foregone conclusion because he was “the candidate of the state.”

However, Bouteflika somewhat contradicted them in a Victory Day speech on March 18 by urging politicians from various parties to prepare for an open and pluralist “race to the power.”

“The political landscape needs to be more diversified and pluralistic with divergent programmes and agendas compared and selected on their merits. The race for power must be open and free,” Bouteflika said.

“Each of us has the duty to contribute to giving momentum to this pluralistic and democratic movement on the condition of putting Algeria and the highest interests of its people before all else.”

Potential aspirants showed scepticism and analysts were divided about the meaning of his message.

Some analysts said Bouteflika was signalling to supporters that a genuinely competitive election was more desirable for his own legitimacy. Others said the president might be listening to pleas from his siblings to retire because it is becoming increasingly challenging to reconcile the demanding presidential job for an 81-year-old man in fragile health.

Reports by independent daily El Watan and Algerie Patriotique, a newspaper seen as close to the Algerian Foreign Ministry, said Bouteflika’s brothers, including adviser Said, and their sister Zhor wished the president would not run again.

Abdelaziz Bouteflika has been leading the OPEC-member country for nearly two decades, riding out the upheavals of the “Arab spring” of 2011, with the country wary of a return to violence after the devastating war between Islamists and the military in the 1990s.

Chaos in neighbouring Libya and jihadist threats across the borders in Niger and Mali are reminders of the risks that could come with Bouteflika’s political exit. He is credited with ending the civil war, building the strongest army in the Maghreb and freeing Algeria from foreign debt.

Bouteflika, who turned 81 on March 2, has been elected president four times since 1999. He is one of the few surviving leaders of Algeria’s independence war against France. Bouteflika, who suffered a stroke in 2013, has made more frequent, if brief, state television appearances since February.

“It is necessary that our society pursues the promotion of the culture of rights and freedoms and the protection of its collective and highest interests,” Bouteflika said in his Victory Day speech.

Analysts said the immediate aim of the remarks by Bouteflika was to put the presidential elections in perspective and tolerate the possibility of an open race.

They argued that his speech was preceded by overblown rhetoric about Bouteflika’s record that depreciated the next election process to most Algerians and discouraged aspirants from participating in the polls.

They cited, as examples of such rhetoric, comments by Bouteflika’s ally Khaled Bounedjma, the head of pro-government National Front for Social Justice, who argued that “Algerians were eating grass because of poverty before Bouteflika becomes president. ”

They pointed to the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) Secretary-General Djamel Ould Abbes saying: “I will vote for president even if he is in the grave. The FLN is the state and the election of the president is a state issue.”

“Unfortunately, these remarks are not isolated. As the election nears, the presidential camp gets carried away with who makes the best pledge of allegiance to the prince of the moment,” said Tayeb Belghiche, veteran political columnist at El Watan.

Bouteflika’s supporters and local media insist that an alternative to the president would push the country into chaos and a transition from Bouteflika is seen as risky by most Algerians, though many may not be happy with the situation, analysts said.

“What the average Algerian fears the most is the change,” said analyst Mustapha Hammouche.

Because of the lopsided political landscape, next year’s presidential elections remain a riddle even for potential contenders.

“For the government, as well as for the opposition and its likely aspirants for the presidency, there is an awkwardness,” said analyst Hacen Ouali. “There is a strange paradox. Instead of a political dynamic from the presidential elections, there is passivity and stagnation.”

Fatiha Benabbou, a law professor at the University of Algiers, said: “President Bouteflika sought to reassure the political class which is completely stunned by the eventuality of a fifth mandate. He also attempted to stem the looming abstention of the voters due to political apathy.”

Political parties in the opposition described Bouteflika’s remarks as “fishing bait” aimed at spurring opposition to take part in the 2019 elections to bolster his legitimacy.

“He threw a bait to lure credible politicians to take part in the polls and legitimate the fifth mandate, which is against the constitution,” said Soufiane Djilali, president of the Jil Jadid party.

Constitution amendments approved in 2016 limit presidents to two 5-year terms, reversing a previous constitution change in 2008 allowing unlimited terms for presidents.

Opponents like Djilali argue that Bouteflika “is not in full control of his  mental health and is manipulated by his entourage to remain in office,”  so his reelection is not legal or legitimate.

Talaie El Hourriyet (Vanguards of Freedoms) party, which is led by former Prime Minister Ali Benflis, said there was no independent elections watchdog and opposition parties have no access to state media making talk about a free “race to power” ring hollow.

The main secularist opposition Socialist Forces Front party said: “There are no conditions for fair and free elections. The regime does not respect even its own laws and rules regarding the respect of rights and freedoms.”