Algerian president seeks fifth term in election fraught with many risks

“The elections are going to take place on moving ground. Now, most of the population mistrusts the elections," said Louisa Hanoune, secretary-general of the leftist Workers Party.
Sunday 17/02/2019
An Algerian man reads a newspaper at a bus station next to a banner showing the Algerian flag with a portrait of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algiers. (AFP)
Few options. An Algerian man reads a newspaper at a bus station next to a banner showing the Algerian flag with a portrait of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algiers. (AFP)

TUNIS - Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced he would pursue a fifth term in office in April’s elections, prompting criticism from the opposition and concerns about the country’s future.

Bouteflika, who turns 82 on March 2, has rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013. He last appeared in public November 1 during a wreath-laying ceremony at a memorial service for Algerian independence fighters.  Bouteflika appeared frail as he struggled to observe rituals during the recitation of the opening verse of the Quran.

However, he has vowed to exert “a lot of spirit” to overcome his health problems and carry out his “ultimate duty” to lead.

Opposition leaders and analysts warned that Bouteflika’s re-election would risk an “unprecedented groundswell” of discontent, particularly among young Algerians struggling with economic hardship.

Algeria has battled high unemployment and lacklustre growth for years, prompting many young people to emigrate.

However, Bouteflika is credited with forging stability and providing for basic social needs and remains popular.

The president’s supporters say re-electing Bouteflika on a reform agenda would help bring about a “generational change” of leadership without undermining stability.

Since Algeria’s electoral process began January 18, nearly 200 people have registered as candidates, more than double the number in 2014.

However, many say Bouteflika, in power since 1999, will easily win a fifth term. The country’s ruling National Liberation Front and three other parties, which together form the so-called presidential majority, predict “elections will be a mere formality.”

“April 18 will be a day of celebrations of the victory of President Bouteflika,” a statement from the group said.

The president’s backers said he planned to continue redeveloping the country, which suffered a destructive civil war in the 1990s.

“During his last mandate, we rebuilt all stories of Algeria’s houses, including in the economic, social and cultural fields,” said former Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal, who heads the president’s re-election campaign.

“The goal now is to roll out the roof… to solidify and protect Algeria once and for all and make it able to resist and confront the challenges of the next century with great serenity.”

Asked whether Bouteflika’s fifth term would be his last, Sellal said “no.”

Opposition politicians voiced concern about deep public mistrust over upcoming elections.

“We are terrified,” said Louisa Hanoune, secretary-general of the leftist Workers Party. “We do not know what will happen until then and how citizens will react.

“The elections are going to take place on moving ground. Now, most of the population mistrusts the elections but if they change their minds and decide to occupy voting places to try to prevent voter fraud, what will happen then? We know that regime predators will resort to violence and they have the means to do it.”

Ali Laskri, president of the main secularist opposition Socialist Forces Front, which has called for an elections boycott and peaceful popular resistance, said: “Bouteflika is here for life.”

“This regime has always functioned that way and has not changed,” he said. “In 2011, Bouteflika talked about the same reforms and generational change but no change dawned.”

Former Prime Minister Ali Benflis said Bouteflika’s re-election was being orchestrated by officials behind the scenes and that it risked “pushing Algeria into an uncertain future.”

“Those who are behind the fifth mandate would not have received the president’s approval were he conscious,” Benflis said.

Other opposition figures also cast doubt on whether Bouteflika was “willingly” seeking a fifth mandate.

Benflis warned that Bouteflika’s re-election would mean “inertia and stagnation” for Algeria.

“The country will continue to be run by extra-constitutional forces, which continue usurping the function and prerogatives of the president and they will continue to talk and act on behalf of the president,” said Benflis.

However, analysts said the primary fear of most Algerians is the “resurgence of the radical Islam.” Algeria had a bloody decade-long civil war in the 1990s pitting the government against radical Islamists.

“All Algerians know that if Bouteflika is re-elected there will be no vendetta or a general audit nor calling into question what was done in the past 20 years,” said Said Boucetta, a political writer who supports Bouteflika’s re-election.

The status quo has stalled reform efforts, however, while the state considers the interests of the country’s influential elites.

“The regime is holding on and it is increasingly clear that pro-democracy opposition has yet to gain enough strength to impose change,” said political writer Bachir Maedjahed. “Even a possible scenario of a meaningful change does not exist for now.”

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