Algerian President Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika has called for presidential elections to be held on 18 April in line with the country’s constitution and elections law, putting to rest rumours among the Algerian public about their possible postponement.
The contenders have until early March to register for the race. Over the past year debate has been rife about whether Bouteflika will run for a fifth term in office, especially as he has made it a habit to announce his participation at the last minute.
The Algerian Islamist parties have called for postponing the elections and extending Bouteflika’s current term, which ends on 28 April, for a year or more because of his health and to give Algeria the chance to arrive at a “consensus” over the coming phase.
The 81-year-old president had a stroke in 2013 that left him in a wheelchair. He has rarely been seen in public since.
Bouteflika’s opponents say that Algeria’s longest-serving president is not in a fit state to rule, though his supporters say that despite his physical illness his mental powers make him fit to stay at the helm.
Algeria’s ruling parties, official labour unions and business associations, as well as military figures, have already called upon Bouteflika to run in the elections.
Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, leader of the Democratic National Rally that is in alliance with the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN), said he would not seek the presidency if Bouteflika decided to participate in the elections.
Ouyahia is not the only politician to adopt such a position, and other prominent figures are also concealing their intentions until Bouteflika’s decision has been announced.
Most, if not all, of them will refuse to contest the elections if the president opts to run again.
Bouteflika is widely respected in Algeria because of his leading role in ending the civil war that claimed the lives of some 200,000 Algerians in the 1990s.
However, in a famous 2012 speech Bouteflika said he would soon give up power. “For my generation, it’s game over,” he told a room full of young people on this occasion, but Algeria has not seen his words materialise.
In 1991, the army leadership cancelled the results of the first round of the country’s legislative elections in which the Islamic Salvation Front was the winner.
Bouteflika returned from Switzerland in 1991 to contest the presidential elections with a campaign of “civil concord” and a Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation intended to end the civil conflict and pardon those who had taken up weapons against the state.
The charter received the approval of 97 per cent of Algerians in a 2006 referendum, granting Bouteflika a legitimacy and popularity that was unprecedented in the country’s history since independence.
He is likely to win a fifth term if he runs in this year’s elections, mainly due to the division of the opposition between the Islamists and the nationalists and because the Movement for the Society of Peace, an Islamist party with close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, has said it will boycott the elections if Bouteflika announces his intention to run.
However, Bouteflika has also repeatedly called on more contenders to contest the presidential elections.
In the past four races he won with high percentages of the vote, scoring 82 per cent of the votes cast in 2014, 90 per cent in 2009, 85 per cent in 2004 and 74 per cent in 1999.
More than half of the Algerian population is now less than 30 years old, which means more than 50 per cent of people have no memory of the golden age of the FLN, of which Bouteflika is a main icon.
Bouteflika joined the ranks of the FLN in 1956 at the age of 19, and he later became one of its leaders.
He was appointed minister of sports and tourism when Algeria gained its independence from France in 1962.
A year later he became foreign minister, contributing to the overthrow of Algeria’s first post-independence president, Ahmed ben Bella.
Houari Boumediene succeeded Ben Bella by assuming the presidency of the country’s ruling revolutionary council.
When Boumediene died in 1978, Bouteflika, still foreign minister, chose to go into exile and did not return permanently to the country until 1999 to contest the presidential elections.
For two decades, he has promoted the use of the country’s oil and gas revenues to construct transportation, water and infrastructure projects.
However, Algeria’s economy remains dependent on oil and gas revenues, which constitute 60 per cent of the government budget and 95 per cent of revenues from imports.
Despite all the construction going on across the country, unemployment remains high among Algeria’s youth.
Yet, Algeria is slowly advancing towards liberalising its economy, according to international reports.
Throughout its independent history, the country has had a centrally planned economy within a state socialist system, the foundations of which were laid down during Boumediene’s time.
Algeria saw a period of exceptional industrial development in the 1960s and 1970s, which only came to a halt in the 1980s during the rule of president Chadli Bendjedid (1978-1991).
However, despite international calls to do so, Bouteflika has not speeded up steps to liberalise the economy and has preferred to depend instead on what he has termed the second “oil surplus”.
The president’s supporters claim that the slow economic liberalisation is the result of Bouteflika’s rise at a time when the country was mired in civil war and society needed the government’s support to overcome the crisis.
The country has used its oil revenues to construct major projects in the capital and other cities in order to provide jobs when oil revenues decrease, as was the case between 2014 and 2017.
Many in Algeria believe that the country’s political leaders and their close relations in business circles are standing in the way of opening the door to foreign investments.
This group often recounts Algeria’s cruel past under French colonial rule, lasting more than 130 years, during which more than 1.5 million Algerians were killed in addition to the martyrs of the revolution to gain independence from France.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 January, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Electoral ambiguity in Algeria