Algeria’s FLN keeps members quiet on Bouteflika’s prospects

Despite a reported frail condition, Bouteflika remains a reassuring presence in Algeria’s complex political scene.
Sunday 18/02/2018
Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika at a polling station in Algiers, last November. (AFP)
Mounting speculation. Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika at a polling station in Algiers, last November. (AFP)

TUNIS - Algeria’s ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) ordered members to keep quiet about a possible fifth term for Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a move that analysts described as an attempt to shield the president from public scrutiny.

“We have given clear and strong instructions to our comrades in the party. It is strictly forbidden to talk about the fifth mandate,” FLN Secretary-General Djamel Ould Abbes said.  “It is up to the President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to decide if he likes to seek a fifth mandate.”

The statement represents a shift in thinking from officials who previously encouraged Bouteflika to seek re-election in April 2019. As recently as December, Ould Abbes made comments strongly backing the president.

“The FLN was the first to propose the candidacy of Bouteflika for the presidential elections in 1999. Since then there were four mandates,” Ould Abbes said at the time. “Inshallah (“God willing”), there will be the fifth, the sixth and eternally.”

Bouteflika, who turns 81 on March 2, has been president for almost two decades. He has rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013.

Despite a reported frail condition, Bouteflika remains a reassuring presence in Algeria’s complex political scene and many voiced concern that a leadership transition would bring instability. However, Bouteflika’s declining health has led to questions about his fitness for office.

“The inner circle in the presidential camp has given the order to be silent about the fifth mandate to avert the controversy about the fifth mandate,” said political analyst Mustapha Hammouche. “This fallback position is an important part of the strategy to preserve the status quo.”

He and other analysts said the strategy was aimed at curbing debate over Bouteflika’s health.

“The silence helps the presidential camp avoid the first hurdle: the issue of whether the president is able physically and intellectually to take on the responsibility of a fifth mandate,” Hammouche said. “Keeping quiet gives an advantage to the president’s allies as the silence forces the projects of would-be contenders to stand by. That punishes and undermines the opposition.”

The FLN has threatened to sanction members who make public statements on the president’s campaign.

“Any member who disobeys the party order will stand before the disciplinary board,” Ould Abbes said. “We will be ruthless. Open, all of you, your eyes, and implement the instructions.”

In defiance of the FLN’s order, senior party official Baha Eddine Tliba, a billionaire businessman from the eastern region of Annaba, established a coordination committee to support Bouteflika’s candidacy in 2019.

Tliba, a member of parliament and former deputy speaker, set up a similar committee in 2014 before Bouteflika announced his intention to run for his fourth term.

Algerian analysts said Tliba’s move, which has the support of other top party officials, including former FLN head Abdelaziz Belkhadem and former Energy Minister Chakib Khelil, who is a close Bouteflika ally, is an early display of loyalty to the president.

Tliba and his backers say an early campaign announcement could lend Bouteflika more legitimacy as the race approaches.

Ould Abbes dismissed Tliba’s initiative as an “air bubble in a windmill” and said he would face the party’s disciplinary board.

In the meantime, the FLN is putting the finishing touches on its pro-Bouteflika campaign, which aims to highlight the president’s achievements since taking office in 1999. The party is bracing for questions on how authorities spent an estimated $1 trillion earned from oil and gas exports during Bouteflika’s tenure, Algerian political sources said.

Bouteflika has not directly commented on whether he will seek a fifth term but some of his confidantes conveyed his desire to continue in office at a time when Algeria is facing instability and conflict.

“If Bouteflika is declared a winner in the face of a unified opposition, his presidency and power would be more legitimate,” said political analyst Sofiane Ait Iflis.