TUNIS - Dozens of Algerian presidential hopefuls have declared their candidacy, possibly setting up a hotly contested election in April.
Joining the field were many unconventional candidates, including farmers, construction workers, journalists and clerks, a dramatic shift in a country that has not seen a change of leadership since 1999.
“An obsession to replace President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has seized ordinary people,” commented Algeria’s main daily newspaper El Khabar on January 31 after more than 100 candidates filed appropriate paperwork. “Small merchants, craftsmen and unemployed people are joining leaders of small parties to compete for the elections.”
Among them is bricklayer Ammar Moula, who pledged to “turn Algeria into a more developed country, more than the United States” if elected president.
Also in the mix is clerk Rabah Bencherif, who lost a race for parliament in 1992 on a platform to turn the country’s desert region into a “new California” by digging a water channel through the Mediterranean Sea.
Housewife Nassira Azira was the first female presidential candidate. Travelling 60km from her hometown of Jubaiha to complete application forms, Azeira pledged to fight for the interests of the poor.
“I have no education level. I have indirect experience in political activity,” she said. “My platform is the protection of the people and the country. Nothing beyond that interests me. I’m close to the poor.”
The only politician from the country’s pro-democracy opposition to declare his candidacy was former General Ali Ghediri.
Former Algerian Prime Minister Ali Benflis, another leading opposition figure, expressed an intention to run but has not confirmed his candidacy amid uncertainty over Bouteflika’s future.
Benflis and other opposition leaders say their campaigns would be a lost cause if Bouteflika stands for re-election.
Bouteflika, 81, has not announced whether he will run. He is widely popular throughout the country but his frail health has raised questions over his fitness to serve. He was elected president in 1999 and won re-election three times but now is rarely seen in public.
While Algerian election law guarantees all citizens the right to run for president, their candidacies must meet stringent requirements to be approved by the constitutional court. They must collect at least 75,000 signatures in at least 25 of the country’s 48 provinces, meaning that many of the announced candidacies are unlikely to move forward.
Analysts said the large number of non-traditional candidates was amusing to the public but a source of concern for Algeria’s political establishment.
“The unconventional candidates are in huge number this time. Even the parliamentary elections did not experience such a craze,” said political writer Madjid Makedhi. “Their strange declarations on television make watchers laugh. People on the internet watch their videos in the hundreds of thousands.”
Political scientist Mohamed Taibi argued that the “orchestrated carnival promoted by television channels is becoming wearisome and it is against political ethics.”
“It is a shock… We must preserve and maintain the image of Algeria and its institutions. It is time to revive the prestige of the presidency from the aspiration to the election of the candidate,” he added.
Algerian Interior Minister Noureddine Bedoui warned that the trend points to “political manipulation,” without elaborating.
Sociologist Nacer Djabi said: “The candidacy to presidency is a right guaranteed to all the Algerians but lawmakers should have thought about a legal filter to stop these curious psychological and sociological cases to jump on the election arena.
“The blame goes first for the television channels that give (a platform to) these funny candidates. This phenomenon belittles first the elections and then the presidency but the true responsibility for this phenomenon falls on the Algerian political regime, which has not produced in number and quality a political elite able to help society.”
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.