In a “message to the nation” this week, Algerian President Abdul-Aziz Bouteflika announced his decision to retract his bid to seek a fifth term as president and to postpone the country’s presidential elections that were to be held on 18 April.
He also promised “substantial changes” in the government’s composition, a comprehensive and inclusive National Conference to draw up a new constitution that would be put to a referendum, and then new presidential elections to be held under the supervision of a new independent national electoral commission.
Bouteflika also signed a decree terminating the duties of Algeria’s current Independent High Commission for Elections headed by Abdelouahab Derbal.
Bouteflika said that he “understood” what had motivated so many of his fellow citizens to take part in the mass demonstrations that had swept the country in recent weeks and stressed that “once again, I laud their peaceful character.”
After the president’s message, Algerian Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia tendered his resignation, and Bouteflika signed a decree creating the post of deputy prime minister and appointing Interior Minister Noureddine Bedoui as the new prime minister and adviser for diplomatic affairs Ramtane Lamara as the new deputy prime minister.
Observers expect that he will assign veteran diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi with the task of steering the interim phase in the capacity of chairman of the newly announced National Conference.
The state news agency the Algerian Press Service (APS) featured photographs of Ouyahia with Bouteflika, Bouteflika with Deputy Minister of Defence and Army Chief of Staff General Ahmed Gaid Salah, and Bouteflika with Brahimi.
All were taken after the president’s return from a private visit to Geneva on Sunday where he had undergone “periodic medical checks”, according to a statement from the presidency.
Bouteflika said in his message to the nation that he had never intended to seek a fifth term as president. “My health and my age only permit me to perform my last duty for the Algerian people, which is to lay the foundations of a new republic that will serve as a framework for the new Algerian system of government to which all aspire,” he said.
“This new republic and this new system will be placed in the hands of the new generations of Algerians who will become the actors and beneficiaries of public life and of the sustainable development of the Algeria of tomorrow.”
The decision to cancel the elections was taken in response to the “pressing demands” put to him by the Algerians and “in order to calm the fears they express,” he said. The new changes “will be an appropriate response to these demands”.
The National Conference is to be an “inclusive and independent” forum “endowed with all the powers necessary for the discussion, elaboration and adoption of all types of reforms needed to form the basis of the new system of government that will enable the launch of a national transformation of our nation state,” Bouteflika said.
It would represent the whole spectrum of views and components of Algerian society, and “it will have complete freedom in the performance of its activities under a multi-member leadership chaired by an experienced and universally acceptable independent national figure.”
The conference will have until the end of 2019 to complete its work, after which the draft constitution it prepares will be put to a popular referendum.
The conference will also have “the sovereign power” to set the date for new presidential elections “conducted under the exclusive supervision of a new independent national electoral commission, the mandate, composition and operations of which will be established by a specific piece of legislation.”
The decision to create the new commission, Bouteflika said, had come “in response to a demand that has broad support among Algerian political parties and that has often been recommended by the regional and international electoral observation missions that Algeria has invited and welcomed during previous election periods.”
In order to ensure that presidential elections are held “under indisputable conditions of freedom, regularity and transparency,” a government of technocrats will be formed.
This government, which will “enjoy the support of the National Conference,” will “assume the supervision of public administration and national security and will assist the new independent national electoral commission.”
Algeria’s existing Constitutional Council “will assume, with full independence, the powers granted to it under the constitution and the law with regard to presidential elections.”
Lakhdar Brahimi, who paid a courtesy visit to Bouteflika following his return from Geneva, said that he had had the honour to be received by the president who “informed me of important decisions he was in the process of making.”
“The voice of the people and of the youth in particular has been heard. A new and constructive phase will begin soon, which will remedy many of our problems,” Brahimi said at a press conference following the meeting.
He lauded Algeria’s youth for the spirit of responsibility they had showed in the earlier demonstrations, winning “the admiration of all at home and abroad.”
He said he hoped “we will continue to treat each other with this kind of responsibility and mutual respect as we turn this crisis into an occasion for development and reconstruction.”
Brahimi served as UN and Arab League special envoy to Syria until May 2014. He is a member of the African Union’s Panel of the Wise and of The Elders Organisation founded by late South African president Nelson Mandela.
Ramtane Lamamra served as Algeria’s foreign minister under former prime minister Abdel-Malek Sellal before being appointed as presidential adviser for diplomatic affairs a few weeks ago.
It seems likely that Algeria will rely heavily on Brahimi and Lamamra to steer the country towards a new second republic. The first, dominated by the National Liberation Front (FLN), was established over six decades ago following the country’s independence from French colonial rule.
Before Bouteflika’s message was broadcast, the Algerian media continued to cover the mass demonstrations in the country that were increasingly gaining momentum as they had been joined by a general strike.
On Sunday, merchants across the country shuttered their stores, and train and airplane services were paralysed. “Many merchants and workers organised a strike on Sunday in Algiers and other parts of the country, in tandem with peaceful marches by students,” APS reported.
It added that the strike had been initiated by “anonymous calls” circulated across social-networking platforms. “Some merchants” had closed their stores in response to these calls, whereas others had done so “out of fears of the marches that have been seen in the capital and other parts of the country”.
In addition to Algiers, the eastern cities of Constantine, Skikda, Annaba, Batna, Taraf and Khanshleh and the southern cities of Ouargla, Ouadi, Ghardaia, Laghouat, Adrar and Bachar were the most affected by demonstrations. According to the APS, there were no major clashes or security incidents.
In an unprecedented development, on Monday, more than a thousand Algerian judges announced that they would refuse to supervise the presidential elections if Bouteflika insisted on running.
Algerian Justice Minister Tayeb Louh, said to be a member of Bouteflika’s inner circle, called on the judges to remain neutral and to refrain from intervening in political affairs.
“Judges must abide by the duty of restraint and avoid anything that might cast suspicion on their impartiality and independence,” he said.
“They must be fully aware of the weight of responsibility that falls on them, and this responsibility must in all circumstances be consistent with the principles stipulated by the law and the code of ethics of their profession.”
Deputy Minister of Defence Ahmed Gaid Salah, who has been appearing frequently in the press, said that the Algerian National People’s Army, “the worthy heir to the National Liberation Army” and the Algerian people “share the foundations of a future-looking vision for the Algeria of tomorrow”.
Speaking at the annual meeting of organisations training members of the army on Sunday, he said that incentives existed to unify the vision for the nation and that these had been shaped by a shared vision of history.
In another unprecedented development on Monday, six parliamentary blocs boycotted a session dedicated to a vote on three government-sponsored bills.
MPs from the Movement of Society for Peace, the Workers’ Party, the Islamic Renaissance Movement (Ennahda), the Rally for Culture and Democracy, the Future Front and the Social Forces Front assembled in the parliament building in Algiers and declared their support for the popular movement against Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term as president and demands for a political system governed by the rule of law.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 March, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Algerian elections postponed