Algeria is holding elections, but no one seems-or needs-to care
The electoral campaigns for the April 2014 presidential elections in Algeria have started in earnest. The candidates have scrambled to visit Algeria’s provinces, with the exception of the incumbent 76-years-old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has dispatched delegates to represent him at his campaign’s events instead.
But there are little to no signs on the Algerian street that presidential campaigns are approaching. This means that we have a rigged election on our hands. Indeed, even during years of conflict, Algerians were more enthusiastic about elections than they are today.
All indications suggest that the election has been all but settled, with all spectra of power and business leaders in Algeria agreeing on another term for Bouteflika. But some observers have wagered on Ali Benflis as a possible challenger of Bouteflika’s electoral juggernaut – which is currently preoccupied with the attempt to polish Bouteflika’s image, highlight his achievements in his 15 years in office, and refute allegations of corruption surrounding him and his entourage.
Ordinary Algerians have found themselves face to face with a presidential election that is a farce. In the past few months, Algeria saw developments that are nearly unprecedented in its political history since independence, with harsh criticisms made against Algeria’s top brass.
For instance, the new leader of the National Liberation Front (FLN), Ammar Saidani, attacked the powerful Algerian intelligence chief General Mohammed “Toufiq” Mediene, and blamed him for many failures, calling on him to resign. This followed reports about disputes within the top echelons of power in the country, and rumors that the secret services were opposed to another term for the “sick president.”
But suddenly, in the midst of all of this, a consensus emerged among all stakeholders over Bouteflika remaining in office. The president issued messages of reassurance to the intelligence services, calling for keeping all hands off the country’s security and defense agencies.
Before the start of the electoral campaigns, the Constitutional Council, the body charged with approving or rejecting candidatures, faced an early test to present a list of appropriate candidates. It appeared as though the council wanted candidates who can make things a bit interesting ahead of Bouteflika’s expected victory.
Footage of Bouteflika arriving at the council’s headquarters to submit his candidature, and then of him handing over his dossier was broadcast across Algerian media. There was also footage of the incumbent president giving remarks but without any independent reporters being present.
The council accepted his application supplemented by a medical certificate proving that he is in good health, even though the man is unable to stand. One of the men representing him in his provincial campaigns, Abdelaziz Belkhadem, the former head of the FLN, denied that Bouteflika was paralyzed.
For his part, Amara Benyounes, head of the Popular Movement, insists that Bouteflika does not only retain his full mental capacity, but that he is smarter than everyone, saying that the man ultimately runs the country with his brain not his legs. This is more or less the same claim being made by all the men who support a fourth term for Bouteflika, including the prime minister and the former secretary general of the National Rally for Democracy Party (RND).
On the other hand, former President Liamine Zeroual made statements deeming the amendment of the constitution in 2008, allowing Bouteflika to serve for a third term, an abuse of the process of democratic transition, and expressed his opposition to a fourth term for the sitting president. It is believed that Zeroual’s remarks have hurt the president’s campaign, and served the cause of other candidates led by Ali Benflis.
An impressive army of former ministers, MPs, and politicians in the FLN and RND – as well as the Islamist-leaning Movement for the Society of Peace (MSP) led by Minister Ammar Ghoul, and the Popular Movement led by Minister Amara Benyounes – have rallied around what is left of Bouteflika to win a fourth presidential term. All of them, in addition to former prime ministers and leaders of the ruling party Ahmed Ouyahia and Abdelaziz Belkhadem, will serve as the intermediary between Bouteflika and the people.
Add to all these men the capitalists in the country, who have unanimously endorsed Bouteflika, and we get a very powerful candidate, even though he is effectively disabled.
Many believe that 70-year-old Benflis is one of the regime’s children and is on a cosmetic presidential mission, but who at the same time could be holding out for a miraculous victory in the ballots that would take him to the presidential palace. Benflis, who is the subject of many rumours and questions, is once again back to confronting Bouteflika, as he had done ten years ago before he exited politics.
To the credit of the former justice minister, prime minister, and Bouteflika’s campaign manager in 1999, he had resigned from his post and cofounded a human rights group. Although Benflis’ odds are not as good as the incumbent president’s, he remains in a better position than other candidates, as his staff and supporters affirm. However, Benflis’ image vis-à-vis the powerful state-backed alliance he is challenging is rather quixotic.
It seems as though the presidential election is of little concern or that it is taking place in a completely different country. Louisa Hanoune, 60-years-old and the leader of the Workers’ Party, is also running for president. She understands that her odds with the Algerian people are limited, especially since she started toning down her criticisms of the regime under Bouteflika. Hanoune began her campaign by complaining about the “dangerous” duality of Bouteflika and Benflis. She is wagering on her persuasive abilities that she has been known for, for the thirty years she spent promoting her left-wing platform.
For his part, the head of the Front for the Future, Abdelaziz Belaid, is fighting his campaign on the premise that he, being 51-years-old, is the youngest of the candidates. Although he is technically middle-aged, he is speaking as a candidate for the youths. He will have to win over the Patriotic Movement to which he belonged throughout his youth, before he withdrew from the FLN and founded the Front for the Future.
Finally, 61-year-old Moussa Touati and 59-year-old Ali Fawzi Rebaine have yet to give up, given their limited – but solid – popularity. This is the second time that Touati, who leads the Algerian National Front, and Rebaine, the head of the Ahd 54 Party, are running for president.
Perhaps the only thing in common between the two men is that they have never stopped repeating the same rhetoric over the years. They have never changed their convictions or attitudes, and speak as though they are a political force to be reckoned with, with Rebaine believing that he is the only true oppositionist in Algeria, while Touati thinks that his party and his person are serious alternatives for a better Algeria.
An unusual state of apathy has descended over the Algerian public. It seems as though the presidential election is of little concern or that it is taking place in a completely different country.
Although the media has dedicated a lot of energy to provide coverage for the election, this has yet to propel it into the sphere of interest for most Algerians. It is like the Algerians and the candidates live on completely different planets.