Bouteflika likely to win Algeria election, but opposition is growing

Nadeen Shaker , Monday 14 Apr 2014

Opponents say it is unconstitutional for President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to stand for a fourth term, and they are becoming increasingly vocal

Demonstrators from the "Barakat!" ("Enough") group, protest during a rally against Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Saturday, 15 March, 2014 in Algiers (Photo: AP)

Elections in Algeria might well preserve a president who has been in power for 15 years. But his string of victories will likely be challenged by a fraught political environment and a rising opposition movement.

Polls in the North African country are set to open on 17 April with a diverse mix of candidates to choose from, ranging from a Trotskyist to a human rights-based party leader, and other newcomers.

Yet these candidates have little chance of winning the national vote. Not even the current president’s former prime minister between 2000 and 2003, Ali Benflis, who is considered his greatest challenger in the presidential race.

Dissenting voices deem this election one of the most contentious in the country's history.

Bouteflika’s bid to stand for a fourth term comes despite promises to step down.

In May 2012, Bouteflika announced: “My generation has reached its end. We did things for the country. Henceforward, the country is in your hands, you the young. Take care of it.”

His words were interpreted as a de facto handover of power from the generation that was born after Algeria’s independence from France in 1962 and has ruled it ever since. 

“This theme has been a recurring issue in the discourse of numerous political, media and civil society personalities,” Imad Mesdoua, a political analyst with the Mintz Group investigative services firm, told Ahram Online.

He argues that the average person is more interested in “bread and butter issues.”

In the public’s eye, Bouteflika is credited with ending a protracted civil war in the early 1990s between the state and Islamists, as well as steering Algeria into a safe and stable harbour during and after the 2011 Arab uprisings.

In fact, his electoral campaign, which he is absent from due to his failing health, trumpets both achievements.

Failing to join the campaign trail and making few public appearances since suffering a stroke last year has raised doubts as to the president’s ability to rule.

But the ailing president’s health does not constitute the only objection to his re-election, there are other grievances that have marked his stay in power.

Speaking to Ahram Online, Algerian journalist Omar Shabbi cites corruption scandals, especially among the president’s inner circle of aides. The most recent scandal involving Sonatrach, an Algerian government-owned company, saw Canadian and Italian firms secure dubious oil contracts by bribing Algerian officials. 

Also, discontent is fuelled towards the soaring costs of governmental projects, such as the cross-country $11.2 billion East-West highway, under construction since 2007.

A display of political dissatisfaction was played out over the past two weeks at Bouteflika’s campaign rallies and gatherings, which were disrupted by opposition groups.

The most violent was in Bejaia, in the Kabylie region, when disgruntled youth and opponents of the president burned down the local Maison de la Culture, where a presidential rally was due to take place.

Making headlines is an intellectuals and youth-driven movement called Barakat, the Arabic word for "enough" in the Algerian dialect. It mainly aims to prevent the fourth mandate sought by the president.

In an interview with Open Democracy, the movement's co-founder, Amira Bouraoui, says: “The fourth term is simply the symbol of a regime and a system that is archaic. We are witnessing an electoral masquerade, a process designed to impose Abdelaziz Bouteflika for a fourth term. Instead, we call for the people to be really and truly consulted about its choice of leader.”

Bouraoui also cites the president’s re-election as unconstitutional. The Algerian constitution only allows a president to run twice, which Bouteflika used up, then removed the term limitation, without a referendum, to stand for a third term in 2008.

“The Barakat movement is somehow like Tamarod (Rebel) in Egypt. It is against the fourth term as supported by the constitution. The movement ultimately wants to give change a voice,” Shabbi says. “Its legitimacy or popularity can’t be measured right now, which is represented by many urban youth using social networks, and are not all Algerian voters.”

While criticism is often directed at the movement for failing to gain momentum and influence the larger popular base, the movement is systematically being crushed by the government, which arrests its leaders and labels its members “foreign agents” and “importers of Arab Spring-style instability,” Mesdoua says.

Days ahead of the election, “We will see much polarisation in the political scene. Each camp will play its last cards while Algerians vote next Thursday with fear and anxiety,” Shabbi says. “What can it bring? Many are confident that Bouteflika will be the new-old president. Eyes will be turned to what his major rival, Benflis, will do.”

Mesdoua has news that Benflis claims that he has prepared a group of 60,000 "observers" from his campaign to supervise voting stations throughout the country.

Bouraoui says her movement will organise action on the ground until Thursday and continue to do so after the election in order to “reject this illegitimately elected president." 

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