Campaign against Bouteflika re-election bid gains momentum but government pushes back

While Bouteflika has yet to announce whether he will stand for re-election, his supporters have ramped up efforts to boost his popularity.
Sunday 01/07/2018
Few options. A woman walks past posters of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algiers.  (Reuters)
Few options. A woman walks past posters of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algiers. (Reuters)

TUNIS - Prominent Algerian figures initiated a campaign to urge President Abdelaziz Bouteflika from pursuing re-election but the president’s supporters continue to position him as the best candidate ahead of the 2019 campaign.

The government is using a large-scale housing scheme to shore up support and fulfil one of Bouteflika’s previous campaign promises. Five government ministers presided over a ceremony in which keys to subsidised housing units were given to some 50,000 families in Cheraga, on the outskirts of Algiers.

“The ambience was overexcited as the families gathered to get the keys of their houses were overwhelmed by joy and excitement,” reported L’Expression daily newspaper, which is close to the presidency. “These families took part in the biggest operation of handing out houses since Algerian independence (in 1962).”

The government announced that 700,000 housing units were being built and would be given to people “as soon as the final touches were completed.”

In early June, opponents announced a movement against Bouteflika, 81 and in his fourth 5-year term as president, extending his stay in power in 2019. The movement, called Citizenship-Democracy, said it wants to “change this regime and lay the ground for genuine conditions of a peaceful transition.”

“Algeria needs political and institutional reforms of wider scope,” reads the movement’s manifesto. “This task can only be carried out by a trans-partisan movement backed by a large majority of the population.”

The campaigners hope to reform a regime that has been nearly unchanged since Algeria’s independence 56 years ago.

“With this in mind, the presidential elections in 2019, though crucial, must be seen as a stage. The outcome of this trial of force will decide on the new balance of strengths that will weigh on the future of the country,” the movement said.

The leaders of the campaign, who include writer Yasmina Khadra, former Prime Minister Ahmed Benbitour, two party leaders and ten leading university and civil society figures, previously wrote an open letter urging Bouteflika not to pursue a fifth mandate. They argued that it would be “painful” for him and “tragic” for the country if he were to stay in power beyond 2019.

“We have resorted to this letter-writing style because of the self-evident fact that your health condition does not permit you to receive Algerian citizens anymore,” read the open letter.

“When immoral forces get excited to lead you on the path of a fifth mandate, we want respectfully but frankly to tell you about the tragic mistake if you reject once again the voice of wisdom that calls out every soul at an hour of fateful choices. At such an hour, as you know, making a choice is giving up.”

Bouteflika has suffered two strokes since 2013 and makes few public appearances, which fuels questions about his health.

While Bouteflika has yet to announce whether he will stand for re-election, his supporters want him to run and ramped up efforts to boost his popularity.

“After a meeting of the high council of the party, we have taken the decision to all on President Bouteflika to pursue his mission,” said Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyhia at the end a National Rally for Democracy (RND) party leadership gathering on June 23.

The RND, which forms the coalition government with the National Liberation Front (FLN), “assures the President Bouteflika of its support to accomplish a new mandate as head  of the state,” he added.

Ceremonies to distribute subsidised housing units, to be repeated 48 key areas of the country, are part of the strategy to drum up support for Bouteflika’s re-election.

Responding to the open letter addressed to Bouteflika, a leading supporter of the president said the initiative was a display of “emotions.”

“This initiative looks like an emotional reaction from a group of persons rather than a political move,” said Abdelaziz Ziari, a leading FLN figure and former parliament speaker. “It mirrors the incapacity of following the institutional and constitutional paths to make positive proposals in order to tackle the challenges of the country’s future.

“After all, it is for the Algerian people to decide.”

Analysts said the letter’s signatories were motivated by a lack of political alternatives and an opposition divided by leadership infighting.

“The political scene is running very slow now,” said political analyst and Algiers university instructor Mokrane Ait Orabi. “After 19 years of Bouteflika’s rule, the political landscape had been swept by erosion and desertification; no debate and few initiatives of significance.

“The task of the regime has been made easier by divisions and infighting among the opposition.”

Analysts said authorities under Bouteflika used repression and co-optation to weaken the opposition.

“About 127 young people have been killed since October 1988 in protests. Peaceful marches — for better purchasing power, for housing, for better working conditions, for less pollution and against shale gas industry — had all been faced by police baton and muzzling,” said sociologist Nacer Djabi.

The Citizenship-Democracy movement said it plans to draft a “common programme for political reforms,” push new initiatives and pressure Bouteflika to not seek a fifth term.

The government’s distribution of housing units is a sign Bouteflika’s backers aim to highlight his economic record and downplay concerns about his health. Over the last 19 years, Algeria has invested significant funds in infrastructure. Roads, bridges, railways, dams, ports, universities, hospitals and housing units have been revamped.

When Bouteflika was re-elected in 2014, he promised to continue social housing projects regardless of the country’s financial situation.

“The financial crisis of the country will not hinder the housing programme,” said Housing Minister Abdelwahid Temmar. “We will continue delivering houses at a high speed.”