Algerian president returns from medical check-up amid speculation about next election

Analysts say an Islamist candidacy for president would likely benefit Bouteflika since most Algerians distrust political Islam.
Sunday 09/09/2018
Only game in town. A woman walks past posters of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algiers.  (Reuters)
Only game in town. A woman walks past posters of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algiers. (Reuters)

TUNIS - Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika returned from a medical check-up in Switzerland as speculation grew over his potential bid for re-election next year.

Bouteflika, 81, is serving his fourth 5-year term as president. He has been dogged by health problems in recent years and has rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013. No details about the recent examinations in Switzerland were released.

Despite the president’s condition, his backers have urged him to seek a fifth term in elections next April. He has not announced whether he will seek a new mandate.

On September 2, the day after Bouteflika returned to Algeria, supporters announced the formation of a “popular front” comprised of 16 political parties supporting his re-election. Such support is likely to grow to counter the political aims of the Muslim Brotherhood’s affiliate in Algeria, whose head said he would run in the presidential elections.

Abderrazak Makri, leader of the Movement of Social Peace (MSP), a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate in Algeria, said he would turn the country into “one of the top 20 economic powers in the world” if elected.

However, analysts say an Islamist candidacy for president would likely benefit Bouteflika since most Algerians distrust political Islam because of its role in the civil war in the 1990s.

Bouteflika has moved to assert his power and restructure the ranks of government ahead of next year’s vote, including firing Mostefa Layadi, head of the local government in the southern garrison town of Blida, where a recent outbreak of cholera began.

Thousands of people took to the street to celebrate the sacking of Layadi, who was blamed for mismanaging the health crisis in which two people died.

“It is a good signal for the future of Blida town and its region,” a local resident told El Watan newspaper, which opposes a fifth mandate for Bouteflika. “Thank you, Mister President for taking this decision,” the resident said.

Analysts expect Bouteflika to “chop off more heads,” including in the military infrastructure, to prevent resistance among “sceptical people within the ruling elites.”

“With a certainly positive medical check-up, Bouteflika wanted to signal to all others within the regime that they must take account of his power,” said political writer Arab Chih. “His authority strengthened because he doubles as defence minister, the president is likely to sign off on the ‘chopping of the heads’ of other senior military officers.”

“In the end, Bouteflika’s aim in having a medical check-up in Geneva was to overcome the latest pockets of resistance within state bodies against his project to become president for life. Such resistance mirrors the opposition to this project by people in the street,” he added.

Some analysts and insiders said the country’s top military chief, General Ahmed Gaid Salah, would be the next to be fired by Bouteflika.

The president recently purged the country’s military, replacing or transferring a dozen top generals in Algeria’s largest military overhaul since the country’s independence in 1962.

Bouteflika made the high-level military changes, which included commanders of the ground forces, the head of military intelligence and the security chief, from June 26 to August 26, the day his office announced he had travelled to Geneva for medical tests.

Analysts said such an extensive overhaul in a short period was unusual for a large army such Algeria’s and was likely prompted by political, rather than military, considerations.

Commentators speculated whether the military reshuffle was an indication that Bouteflika could be the “only candidate of the state” in next year’s election.

However, they pointed out that Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia’s National Democratic Rally party was absent from the list of 16 parties making up the “popular front” backing Bouteflika’s new mandate. It is spearheaded by the National Liberation Front (FLN).

Still, the only candidate to have announced a bid for president is Makri.

“During our first mandate, we will turn Algeria into a major tourist destination in the region and a hub of banking and financial services. Air Algerie will be able to compete with Turkish Airlines, Emirates Airlines and Qatar Airways,” said Makri.

“In 20 years, if Algerians keep voting for us, we will make Algeria a member of the club of the 20 greatest economic powers in the world.”

On the other end of the political spectrum, Algeria’s main secularist opposition, the Socialist Front Forces (FFS) party, urged young Algerians to stage a “peaceful uprising” to advocate for a change in the political system.

“It is by mobilising the youth that a new relation of the forces will be achieved to force the regime into a political dialogue to change the current regime,” the FFS said in a statement. “The name of the game now is to elevate the political and social awareness of the youth.”