Algeria’s leader sets date for vote but uncertainty remains over his own future

Analysts said the factions that control the country’s policy decisions must come together to forge a consensus on the president’s political future.
Saturday 19/01/2019
Algerian city employees install Algerian flags and President's Abdelaziz Bouteflika poster on the streets ahead of the Parliamentary election in Algiers, Algeria April 26, 2017. (Reuters)
Algerian city employees install Algerian flags and President's Abdelaziz Bouteflika poster on the streets ahead of the Parliamentary election in Algiers, Algeria April 26, 2017. (Reuters)

TUNIS - Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika set April 18 as the date for presidential elections, lifting one layer of doubt about the election process.

Uncertainty remained, however, over who might run because leading figures in the opposition and independents, including at least one retired army general, said the elections would be a foregone conclusion if Bouteflika, 81, decided to seek a fifth mandate.

“Bouteflika and the state behind him will not run for elections to lose. No serious politicians will compete against him as a candidate. That explains the silence of the political class,” said political writer Makhlouf Mehenni.

Aspirants have until March 4 to register their candidacies with the constitutional court.

Adding to the uncertainty is Bouteflika’s health. Weakened by a stroke in 2013, the president rarely appears in public. There is speculation that a tight circle of advisers makes major policy decisions on his behalf. He has not announced whether he would consider another term in office.

Bouteflika made a rare televised appearance November 1 during a wreath-laying ceremony for fallen soldiers of Algeria’s independence war, during which he appeared weak and frail.

Bouteflika issued a decree January 18 convening the electorate for presidential polls on April 18.

“No postponement of the vote is possible after the convening of the electorate by the president. Putting off the elections is legally impossible. After 90 days the elections must take place. It is absolutely imperative,” said Algiers University law Professor Fatiha Benabou.

That leaves regime stakeholders with two options: picking a powerful candidate like army chief General Ahmed Salah Gaid or extending the ailing president’s stay in power despite widespread opposition against his fifth term.

“The convening of the voters by the president does not mean that Bouteflika will be candidate nor that Bouteflika has renounced,” Mehenni said. “Algerians have no choice but to be patient and watch the leaders of the presidential coalition parties, who are the unique and genuine barometer for Bouteflika’s intentions.

“Their silence in the past two months led to speculation about the presidential elections, including that they would be postponed,” he said. “The end of their silence will give indications about the elections and the candidate.”

The four-party presidential coalition includes the National Liberation Front, led by Bouteflika; the National Democratic Rally, led by Algerian Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia; the Algerian Popular Movement led by former Trade Minister Amara Benyounes; and Rally for Algerian Hope, whose leader is former Tourism Minister Amar Ghoul.

An internal document written by a leading Islamist official to his party, disclosed by Algeria’s El Khabar newspaper, said there are behind-the-scenes conversations involving the country’s ruling factions about elections and Bouteflika’s potential role.

The document, based on meetings with top presidential advisers, including his influential brother Said, noted divisions in the country’s ruling camps, including between Said Bouteflika and the military.

While Said Bouteflika has mulled “alternatives” to having Abdelaziz Bouteflika re-elected, including amending the constitution to have his tenure extended, El Khabar quoted Abderrazak Makri, head of the Movement of Society for Peace (MPS), as saying in the eight-page-internal memo that “the army, part of the intelligence services and political parties opposed putting off the elections.”

Bouteflika’s family “is against the president seeking another mandate because of his health,” Makri said in the memo.

Bouteflika, the memo says, “is against leaving office without changing the powers of the president. He feared that his successor uses the huge powers enjoyed by the president against his family.”

MPS has retained close ties with the presidency even after joining the opposition. It was part of a government coalition from 1997-2012.

Analysts said the factions that control the country’s policies -- the military, Bouteflika’s family, ruling political elites and their business allies -- must forge a consensus on the president’s political future.

Opposition parties and many of Bouteflika’s friends and confidants oppose his standing for re-election, arguing it is against his best interest and would be a source of “humiliation for the nation.”

After 20 years in office, Bouteflika is largely respected in Algeria. He is credited with ending a brutal, decade-long civil war and reining in the country’s intelligence services to secure greater civil liberties. He has been widely praised for freeing Algeria from foreign debt and building the nation’s military into one of the most powerful in the continent.

However, analysts said his autocratic style has caused the current political impasse, leaving the country without clear direction.

“At the end of his rule, Abdelaziz Bouteflika leaves the country in a dilapidated state,” said Algerian political writer Hacen Ouali. “It is not because of lack of resources. The country is blessed with all resources if wealth and has a huge potential of human resources.

“Bouteflika’s big failure lies in the inability to make Algeria a republic of justice, democracy and progress for all. He has simply failed miserably on that,” he said.