Algeria’s ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is to seek a fifth term in April elections, the state media announced earlier this week, despite health issues that have kept him largely out of the public eye for years.
With no clear successor to longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Algerians may well see their frail leader who rarely appears in public cling on for a fifth term in office. When Bouteflika came to power in 1999, he won the backing of his conflict-weary citizens who credited him with bringing about reconciliation after a fierce civil war.
The 81-year-old head of state, who has been in power since 1999, declared his widely expected candidacy in a message to the nation. Bouteflika, who uses a wheelchair and has rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013.
The country’s ruling coalition – which includes the president’s National Liberation Front – lent its backing to Bouteflika earlier this year. Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia has said Bouteflika’s health was not “an obstacle” to performing presidential duties.
Retired general Ali Ghediri, 64, was the first to announce his candidacy after the presidency set the election date. Meanwhile, Algeria’s main Islamist party, the Movement for the Society of Peace, will also take part, backing its candidate Abderrazak Makri.
The country’s oldest opposition party, the Front of Socialist Forces, announced on January 25 that it would not field a candidate and called for an “active, intensive and peaceful boycott”. One possible successor, national police chief Abdelghani Hamel, was last month ejected from the president’s inner circle. The sacking of Hamel was intended to curb the official’s ambitions, according to a diplomat based in the capital Algiers.
The move is similar to reshuffles within the powerful intelligence services just months ahead of the 2014 election, in which Bouteflika clinched 81.5 percent of the vote despite being absent from the campaign trail.
Politicians have already been preparing for a fifth term under Bouteflika, with the secretary general of his National Liberation Front (FLN) in April asking him to run.
Last month, Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia said his Rally for National Democracy (RND) party would support the president “continuing his mission and his sacrifice in the service of Algeria.”
One fierce critic of Bouteflika’s decision to stay in power, New Generation (Jil Jadid) party president Soufiane Djilali, accused the presidential camp of trying to “neutralize other potential candidates.” There is “no doubt that President Bouteflika wants to finish his days in power,” he said.
The last presidential election saw a 50-percent abstention rate and it could reach a record high in 2019, with Algerians suffering from falling oil prices and youth unemployment at 30 percent. Half of Algeria’s 40-million population is now under the age of 30 and few young people remember the expectant days of their president’s first term.
Who is Abdelaziz Bouteflika?
Abdelaziz Bouteflika was born in Oujda, Morocco in 1937, and his family was the Algerian city of Tlemcen. Politically, “ In 1957, three years into the Algerian war for independence (1954–62), Bouteflika joined the National Liberation Front (Front de Libération Nationale; FLN) in its fight against French rule.
He became an officer in the National Liberation Army (Armée de Libération Nationale; ALN) in 1960. After Algerian independence in 1962, Bouteflika was appointed minister for youth, sports, and tourism, and a year later he was made foreign minister” (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2014).
However, it was not long after Chadli Benjadid came to power in 1979, following Houari Boumedienne’s death, that Bouteflika was no longer the foreign minister of Algeria. Then, due to some corruption issues, he left Algeria in 1981, only returning in 1987 (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2014). Then, it was in 1999 that Bouteflika became president of Algeria.
Following his rise to power, Bouteflika worked to end the civil conflict in Algeria. He did this by offering amnesty to the Islamic Salvation Front. Following his ability to establish a peace in the mid-2000s, he began to work on developing economic and political ties to countries in Europe and the United States. In addition, he focused heavily on anti-terrorism measures within Algeria.
Abdelaziz Bouteflika has continued to stay in power for four terms, the fourth being the April 2014 elections.
Bouteflika’s Health Issues
Bouteflika’s health has continued to be a cause of concern for those who are wondering whether he has the ability to continue to hold power as the President of Algeria. Bouteflika made minimal public presence continued following the elections. For example, between the elections and 2014, he has made few public appearances.
In addition, along with his 2013 stroke, and his limited appearances the following year, Bouteflika was again hospitalized in November of 2014 in the French city of Grenoble. And, something out of the ordinary for Bouteflika, in October of 2014, “he failed to appear in public for Eid al-Adha prayers marking the end of the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca”.
However, those who back Bouteflika have continued to argue that his health is not an issue, and that he is more than capable of fulfilling his role as the leader of Algeria. Amar Saadani, who is the Secretary General of the National Liberation Front (FLN) was quoted as saying that “”The president is in good health and can perform his duties[.]” He went on to say that “”He spoke to citizens and took an oath. He is in possession of all of his physical and mental faculties”.
Ineffectiveness of the Opposition in Algeria
Despite criticisms of corruption, as well as the strong authoritarianism of Bouteflika, there has not been an opposition that has been able to challenge him successfully in Algeria. There have been various arguments put forth as to why this is the case.
For one, Bouteflika continues to hold onto military and economic power. Economically, he used rents to shore up support domestically, through business elites, as well as through the population. He does this by offering social services, or increases in salaries (as was the case in 2011). This allows him to keep a base of popularity.
Along with this, Bouteflika has oppressed challengers and others who have spoken out about the politics in the country. In addition, he controls the political and electoral spheres of the country. For example, Hugh Roberts points out that the system–which Bouteflika controls–favors him in elections. Thus, while there are officially opposition candidates, Bouteflika’s power is not truly threatened.
But while these factors of repression and economic influence are very important for Bouteflika staying in power. Many of those who criticized Bouteflika running in 2014 have met under the Committee for Freedoms and Democratic Transition–with attempts at forming a bloc against him, although not much has come out of the talks.
Military as Central Pillar
The country’s military has played a pivotal role in politics since the country gained independence in 1962. In 1992, the army intervened in the political process to prevent the Islamic Salvation Front, a loose coalition of Muslim thought currents, from acceding to power, a move that antagonised many Algerians.
As such, when Bouteflika announced the departure of his intelligence chief in 2015, many welcomed the development as ushering in a new era in the state’s historically troubled civil-military relations.
General Mohamed Mediene, or Toufik as he is better known to Algerians, reigned over the country’s arcane Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS by its French acronym) for the better part of a quarter of a century.
In 1999, Mediene, alongside top cadres from Algeria’s military, had engineered Bouteflika’s rise to power. But when Bouteflika sought to run for a fourth term in 2014, Mediene is said to have objected, prompting the president to terminate his powerful general’s duties, in what was largely seen as an effort to consolidate civilian control of the military.
The divorce, however abrupt, would prove difficult to execute in a country where the military played so significant a role in running the country.
The rising protests
In the month of february 2019, university students took to the streets in the latest wave of demonstrations, responding to calls on social media for a rare show of public dissent. They carried banners and chanted slogans against the 81-year-old president, who has governed Algeria for two decades and who has been ailing in recent years.
“Bouteflika, go away!” students called out, waving Algerian flags and singing the national anthem. Demonstrations took place across the nation, from the capital, Algiers, to the port city of Mostaganem in the west and the University of Adrar in the Sahara Desert.
The protests came as some students sought to distance themselves from a group of 11 student unions that had declared support for Bouteflika. “I am a student,” reads a sign posted to Twitter. “No organization represents me. No to a fifth term.”
Bouteflika, who has been in power since 1999, announced earlier this month that he would seek a fifth term, amid questions over his health. He has rarely appeared in public since a stroke in 2013 required him to use a wheelchair, and suspicions have been raised that his advisers, including his brother Saïd, are running the country.
“The people don’t want Bouteflika or Saïd,” students chanted in Algiers. Maher Mezahi, a freelance journalist based in Algiers, says Bouteflika is widely expected to win April’s election, as his National Liberation Front party faces little opposition.
Algerians “know that the election would be skewed heavily in [Bouteflika’s] favor if he does run,” Mezahi tells NPR, which is “why there’s such an urgency to stop him” before he submits his application, which is expected on Sunday. Authorities have maintained that Bouteflika is fit to run the country.
“To those who are dreaming of change I say ‘Have nice dreams,'” said National Liberation Front party leader Moad Bouchareb in a televised address on Saturday, according to Reuters. The president’s supporters have emphasized the risk of unrest and evoked memories of Algeria’s bloody, decade-long civil war that ended during Bouteflika’s first term as president.
But discontent over the country’s economy has bubbled up in the form of smaller strikes and protests.
In addition to a looming crisis, Algeria faces multiple political, economic and social challenges. With no clear heir, his succession could be troubled and worsen Algeria’s ability to tackle mounting economic challenges as oil income dwindles. This would deprive the wider region – particularly the Sahel – of an important stabilising presence.
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