People gather for a mass anti-government demonstration in Algiers
Algeria’s twice-delayed presidential elections finally took place last week despite the rejection of popular protests. Out of the five candidates approved by a government appointed election committee, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, 74, a former prime minister, won with 58.15 per cent of the vote without need for a runoff.
Abdelkader Bengrina came second place with 17.38 per cent of the vote. Former prime minister Ali Benflis — who ran for two previous elections in 2004 and 2014 — finished in third place with 10.55 per cent of the vote. Former minister of culture Azzedine Mihoubi was defeated with only 7.26 per cent of the vote.
According to official figures, voter turnout was 40 per cent, which is relatively low compared to previous elections. Rights groups contesting the official numbers say polling stations where empty and the real voter turnout is a fraction of that figure. There were no independent observers and Algerian officials said the presence of international reporters sufficed.
Videos circulated online of some polling stations being sabotaged by angry protesters and of voters casting their ballots in trash cans. As the ballots were being counted, with Tebboune, an army favourite, progressing as the winner, massive protests rocked the streets of Algiers Friday, 13 December, with chants against the elections.
Algeria’s protest movement, which began in February after then president Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced his intention to run for a fifth term, has been raging on for the past 10 months every Friday. Although Boufelikfa was forced by the military’s chief of staff Ahmed Gaid Saleh to step down in April, protesters continued to rally every week against the ruling system, demanding genuine change and an end to Algeria’s post-independence regime.
Following Bouteflika’s ouster, Saleh, with the army behind him, emerged as the de facto ruler even after Parliament Speaker Abdelkader Bensalah was appointed interim president.
Tebboune, a former Algerian prime minister who served under Bouteflika with a long career in various cabinets as housing and trade minister respectively, will have to face the protest movement that views his election as a charade by the military and a troubled economy reeling from a decline in oil and gas prices. The government’s 2020 budget already approved a nine per cent cut in spending.
In statements following his election victory, Tebboune promised a “new Algeria”. He said he was ready to speak and listen to the protest movement’s leaders. He said he would make it a priority to revise the constitution to establish a “new Algeria” that corresponds to the aspirations of the movement, a project that would be put to a referendum.
The new president has in recent months sought to distance himself from what he described as the “gang” — Bouteflika’s clique.
His repeatedly expressed rejection of the oligarchs in Bouteflika’s inner circle — businessmen who benefited and made fortunes from the system. One of his sons was arrested in May and faces charges of cocaine trafficking.
The largely leaderless protest movement views the election under the same Bouteflika system as a manoeuvre by the military’s chief of staff to sustain the status quo with minimal concessions. Several influential politicians and business tycoons were arrested and referred to trial after Bouteflika’s ouster in an anti-corruption drive by the authorities, with an eye on public anger and the protest movement’s demands to see real change.
On the eve of the presidential vote, two former prime ministers were sentenced to prison after a court convicted them of graft. The trial, dubbed by pro-government media, as “historic” was snubbed by the protest movement, known as the hirak.
Little appears to have changed in Algeria’s power dynamics after the election. Gaid Saleh, said the French daily Le Monde, has in fact emerged as the most powerful figure in Algeria despite the vote. No one in the oil rich north African country has enjoyed such power since president Houari Boumedienne, one of the figures of Algeria’s War of Independence, said Le Monde.
“But Ahmed Gaid Saleh has neither the revolutionary and historic legitimacy nor the charisma of his distant predecessor,” the paper added.