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Will Algeria’s presidential vote proceed?

Candidates have registered for next month’s presidential election in defiance of the protest movement. Amira Howeidy reports

Amira Howeidy , Thursday 31 Oct 2019
Will Algeria’s presidential vote proceed?
Demonstrators carry national flags during a protest against the country’s ruling elite and rejecting December presidential election in Algiers (photo: Reuters)
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Twenty-two candidates have submitted their registration papers to run for Algeria’s 12 December presidential election despite the months-long mass protest movement demanding the departure of the same regime that will oversee the vote.

The protests were initially triggered 22 February by the announcement of ailing president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s bid to run for the fifth time in the April presidential election. Boueflika, an old regime diplomat who ruled for 20 years and whose deteriorating health prevented him from campaigning for the previous election, five years ago in 2014, was eventually forced to resign in April by Army Chief of Staff Ahmed Gaid Saleh in an attempt to appease the growing protest movement paralysing the streets and squares of the Algerian capital every Friday.

He was succeeded by Parliament Speaker Abdelkader Bensalah — a figure unpopular with the dissent movement, the hirak — as interim president.

By then protesters were demanding the departure of the entire system Boueflika created and which has remained in place. As popular demonstrations persisted every week with their anti-le pouvoir (power) demands, authorities began an anti-corruption drive, arresting prominent figures that included Bouteflika’s powerful brother Said, former head of Algeria’s secret services Mohamed Mediene and some of the country’s top billionaires and businessmen.

Gaid Saleh, who emerged as the country’s de facto leader, rejected the hirak’s demands and attempting to impose a status-quo, announced that scheduled presidential elections would be held in July. They were eventually cancelled when, feeling pressure from the hirak, no serious candidates stepped forward.

But as the protests continued every Friday — and frequently during working days — both the dissent movement and Gaid Saleh appeared stuck in their respective positions. Observers criticised the hirak for failing or refusing to form a leadership to negotiate specific demands with the authorities and warned that the protests will eventually wane or receive blows in the absence of a plan.

After July, when dozens of activists were arrested for carrying the Berber Amazigh flag in the demonstrations, police detained three prominent figures from the protest movement in September, signalling both the army’s impatience with the hirak and its growing confidence that a tough approach to the dissent movement was possible.

After declaring the third date — 12 December — for the presidential elections last month, and 22 candidates registering with the election commission, the mood in Algeria appears to have changed.

Frontrunners include Ali Ben Flis, 75, a former prime minister and justice minister who gave his support to the hirak and former minister of housing Abdelmadjid Tebboune, 73.

“I think the regime has been banking on the people getting tired of the uprising and worried about the economic crisis, and has produced a discourse which some candidates — like Ben Flis — have used to justify that presidential elections are the only way out,” said Isabelle Werenfels, an Algeria expert and senior fellow in the Middle East and Africa Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

There is a belief, said Werenfels, shared by the government and some candidates, that this time — and unlike the July vote — elections will not appear completely illegitimate and go down better due to the anti-corruption drive and the formation of an official “independent’ election commission.

“And yet it is surprising people are running, because they will discredit themselves in the hirak,” she added.

In a press conference Saturday, following his registration with the election commission, Ben Flis said he answered the call of duty.

“In a time like this it is imperative for each one of us act responsibly. It is unacceptable for me to stand by as a spectator,” Ben Flis said. “If the elections are held in a transparent and neutral environment, they are capable of bringing an added value, a restoration of legitimacy to institutions from below to the top. [Presidential elections] are capable of bringing a new constitution, independence of the judiciary and advancing rights and freedoms.”

On Sunday, Algeria’s judges and prosecutors began an open-ended strike to protest a massive reshuffle by the justice minister, which they believe compromised their independence. It was followed Tuesday by new calls for a strike in the health sector.

According to the National Magistrates’ Syndicate, the strike was observed by 96 per cent of judges. Next Friday’s protests are expected to draw massive numbers because they coincide with Algeria’s Independence Day, on 1 November.

“The strike is very critical because judges are very important actors,” said Werenfels. “If this dynamic amounts to something larger, and there is huge mobilisation Friday, a historic day, there could be a small chance of derailing the elections.”

 

*A version of this article appears in print in the 31 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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