Amid calls for a boycott, espionage charges against a prominent candidate’s campaign, massive anti-government protests and sweeping arrests, Algeria is scheduled to hold its presidential elections on Thursday 12 December.
They will be the first elections since former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 82, was forced to step down in April after weeks of popular protests against his intention to run for a fifth term in office.
Five out of 23 candidates selected by a government-appointed elections committee are running in an effort by the military-backed regime to maintain its grip on power and end the weekly pro-democracy protests that have been raging in the country since February.
They include former prime ministers Abdelmadjid Tebboune and Ali Benflis, former culture minister Azzedddine Mihoubi, former tourism minister Abdelkader Bengrine and Abdelaziz Belaid, head of the Al-Mostakbal Movement Party.
Thursday’s vote comes after two cancellations. The first, which Bouteflika intended to contest, was in April. The second, in July, was cancelled when no serious candidates emerged owing to the protest movement’s rejection of a vote organised by the ruling establishment it opposes.
While Bouteflika’s replacement, former parliamentary speaker Abdelkader Bensalah, is the country’s interim president, it is military chief of staff Ahmed Gaid Saleh who has emerged as the country’s de facto ruler.
After presenting Bouteflika with an ultimatum to step down, Gaid Saleh attempted to reduce the transitional period that followed by pushing for presidential elections and running up against the popular protest movement’s demands.
In a series of statements, Gaid Saleh has attacked the movement, and in recent weeks the police have arrested dozens of figures associated with the demonstrations, according to rights groups.
The leaderless pro-democracy movement known as the hirak has been consistent in its demands since February. From protesting against Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term in office, it quickly shifted to a flat rejection of the entire ruling system.
However, the military-backed regime in Algeria and its network of interests have remained intact, despite resignations and the arrest of influential figures.
On Friday, tens of thousands of Algerians chanted against the 12 December elections, vowing to boycott them in response. “There will be no vote,” and “no retreat,” they chanted. The protesters fear the elections will likely cement the existing system and see them as part of an effort to avoid meaningful political change.
On Friday evening, the five candidates participated in a first-of-its-kind televised presidential debate in Algeria. The candidates presented their platforms but did not engage or look at each other. “We saw five candidates answering like automatons, as if it were an oral examination,” Algerian journalism professor Djamel Mouafia told the Associated Press.
In neighbouring Tunisia where a recent presidential vote was preceded by two televised presidential debates watched by millions at home and abroad, the Algerian effort was not ignored.
Munathara, the organisation that sponsored and co-organised the Tunisian presidential debates, issued a statement that said the Algerian programme had fallen short of internationally accepted standards for democratic and transparent election debates.
Despite the state-controlled environment of the election process in Algeria, signs of discontent with former premier Binflis appeared this week.
On Monday, the country’s public prosecutor said in a statement that a member of Benflis’s campaign faced charges of espionage on behalf of a foreign country and had been incarcerated. Identified only by his initials, B.S, the statement said the individual had provided information on Algeria’s preparations for the presidential elections.
Former secretary-general of the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) in Algeria and a veteran human rights activist, Benflis, 75, has supported the hirak, announcing his boycott of the July presidential vote before it was cancelled.
He then backtracked when a new date was scheduled for the vote.
Like the other four candidates in the elections, Benflis’s campaign has experienced criticism from protesters during election rallies. Unlike the others, however, Benflis has presented himself as an opposition figure who has not abandoned his ambition to become president.
According to Rochdi Alloui, an independent analyst of North Africa at Georgia State University in the US, Algeria’s political crisis is mounting after 11 months of weekly protests in the face of an unyielding regime.
Trust between the regime and the popular opposition, a crucial condition to resolve the crisis and begin the transition to democracy, was glaringly absent, he wrote in comments published by the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) in the US.
There is a longstanding suspicion of the military in Algeria that stems from its role in the 1992 coup when it cancelled elections that the country’s Islamists were poised to win. Its role in the subsequent civil war did not enhance the military’s reputation, and nor did its history of perpetuating repression, electoral fraud and corruption, Alloui argued.
“The military is equally suspicious of the population, seeing itself as the legitimate ruler of Algeria, and thus it is not yet ready to put its fate into the hands of the people,” he added.
On Tuesday, as the renewed protests raged on, an Algerian court convicted two former prime ministers of graft only two days before the vote. The timing, seen as an attempt to appease the protesters and convey the message that the authorities were serious about combating corruption, is unlikely to sway the voters.
“The most important trust-building measure the military could make now would be to delay the December 12 elections,” Alloui said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.