Uncertainty clouds Bouteflika’s re-election prospects
TUNIS – Supporters of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika used to describe the prospect of his re-election next April as a “certainty.” That assuredness has given way to doubt since Bouteflika’s most recent public appearance.
Weakened by a stroke he suffered in 2013, Bouteflika, 81, was shown November 1 by state television laying a wreath at the memorial of the martyrs of Algeria’s independence war. Bouteflika seemed to struggle to move his hands to his face as part of the ritual observed after reciting the Fatiha, the opening verse of the Quran.
His allies have insisted on the need of “regime continuity” instead of their previous long-held notion of supporting Bouteflika’s re-election bid.
“Four months before the presidential elections due in April 2019, predictions are becoming a fool’s game. The Algerians have been left to their own devices in a complete fog,” said Algerian political writer Arab Chih.
“There is still doubt as to whether the election, which is crucial for the country’s stability, will take place in the deadline set by the law.”
In 2014, Bouteflika announced his candidacy for a fourth term in office 14 months before the April 17 deadline.
By law, Bouteflika must call voters for the upcoming elections by January 18.
All eyes are on a pending meeting by the leaders, including Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, of a four-party coalition that supports Bouteflika for clues about the elections.
“In a break with their voiced support for a fifth term in office for President Bouteflika, the leaders of the presidential coalition have suddenly changed tack since November 1 when the president appeared in a very bad physical condition. They dropped the fifth term mantra to embrace a vague catchall concept of continuity of the regime,” said Chih.
The four-party coalition includes the National Liberation Front presided by Bouteflika, the National Democratic Rally headed by Ouyahia, the Algerian Popular Movement led by former Trade Minister Amara Benyounes and the Rally for Hope in Algeria, whose leader is former Tourism Minister Amar Ghoul.
Experts say a smooth election process in Algeria is crucial for the stability of the country but also of the Maghreb, the Sahel region and for the European Union.
Algeria is the largest African country and boasts the largest military on the continent. It is faced with persistent threats of jihadism at home and the fallout from conflicts in neighbouring Libya and Mali.
Domestic stability is challenged by growing social frustrations among Algeria’s angry unemployed youth and discontent of political and business elites, who resent a ruling system dominated by a populist gerontocracy.
The confluence of external threats and the uneasy domestic climate holds a destabilising potential for Algeria that makes the manner and the outcome of the election pivotal for Algeria’s and the surrounding Maghreb’s future. Two of Algeria’s neighbours, Tunisia and Mauritania, also have elections in 2019.
Algerian analysts said authorities might put off the elections and organise a “national conference” to forge a consensus among the various factions of the regime if Bouteflika’s health does not permit him to run for another term.
“Since his election in 1999, Bouteflika has always respected the deadlines of elections. The non-respect of the constitutional deadline of the vote this time means thrusting the country in a climate of instability,” said secularist opposition Rally for Culture and Democracy leader Mohcine Belabbas.
Algerian analysts speculated that the military could weigh in on the debate behind closed-door among decision makers to back Ouyahia as a successor to Bouteflika.
“All eyes are turned to the military if we are to prevent meddling by foreign powers accustomed to interference in Arab affairs,” said Algerian political writer Bachir Medjahed, who deplored the frayed state of political institutions, including parliament and the government.
“These institutions go into action only when they are activated from the top level of the power,” he added.
The military is perceived by Algeria watchers as the main stakeholder in the balance of power in Algeria alongside the presidency, business groups and political elites.
“There are indeed several scenarios for the upcoming elections floated by the unofficial spokesmen of the regime but the common goal of all of them is the status quo renewal,” said former minister Abdesselam Ali Rachedi.
“In fact, as the political circumstances stand, whether the elections were to be put off and with Bouteflika’s re-election taking place or not, the presidential elections are interesting only for the backers of the regime who enjoy the benefits for this rentier system,” he added.
For opponents seeking a deep and broad change to allow Algeria to be a country ruled by democracy and a state of law, their desire will dawn only if its leaders abandon populism as the basis of legitimacy and embrace the power coming from the respect of fair and free elections, Rachedi said.
“The Algerian regime is a nationalist-populist regime according to the legacy inherited from its national liberation movement. The ideology of this regime does not recognise the rights of the citizens. It sees the people as one compact mass with a charismatic leader on top enjoying quasi-mystic ties with the population.”
“Based on such an ideology, there is no need for institutions, parties and associations. There is, instead, a contract between the paramount leader and the people who abandon their political rights in return for generous social benefits,” Rachedi said.
Lamine Ghanmi is a veteran Reuters journalist. He has covered North Africa for decades and is based in Tunis.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.