ALGERIAN ELECTION UPDATE

Once Abdelaziz Boutef lika announced – via press release – his intention to run for a fourth term despite visible signs of ill health and old age, a potentially interesting presidential campaign immediately became dull and predictable, leading inevitably to a result that was a foregone conclusion.

However, while Bouteflika’s victory might have been a given, these elections have been anything but dull. Following the president’s announcement Algerians in their thousands took to social media to denounce a decision that had been rumoured for months but still appeared improbable. Bouteflika had barely attended four cabinet meetings over the course of a year and had not spoken publically since his return from Paris where he was hospitalised for a stroke in April 2013.

The next day the press was equally scathing with one paper headlining: “He dared” in relation to the almost shameless decision taken by the diminished head of state. Bouteflika’s decisision was all the more striking in light of comments he’d made a few months before his stroke when asked by a jubilant supporter if he’d consider a fourth term. The then jovial and still active president famously replied that his generation’s time was up and, he added, that it was now for the younger people to enter top level politics.

This refreshing sense of self-awareness was welcomed by most observers who at the time, applauded Bouteflika’s seeming willingness to break from the Arab tradition whereby most occupants of the presidential seat cling on to it at all costs. Alas, in the event, in true Arab style, Bouteflika couldn’t resist the call of the koursi or chair and by all accounts will be running the country well into his 80s. With the rumour mill proving its efficiency on this occasion, it appears the idea is to amend the constitution after the elections and turn the presidential role into a more symbolic one mirroring that of Italy or Germany with the prime minister making all executive decisions. Others are saying that Bouteflika will step down in two years in favour of his vice president, a role he intends to create once re-elected.

All in all, while these measures might have some value, nothing justifies his decision to stand for office while in such poor health. In fact the constitution in its current form expects presidential hopefuls to provide evidence of their suitable health to hold office. That said, the constitution also stipulates in article 88 that should the president be incapacitated for more than 45 days the parliament can be recalled to appoint his replacement. Abdelaziz Bouteflika was absent for almost 90 days in 2013 and no government body, the opposition included, called for the terms of article 88 to be implemented. The media blackout during his hospitalisation meant that for the best part of three months, the focus was more on whether Bouteflika was dead or alive than on anything to do with the country, which by then was being diligently run by Prime Minister Abdel Malek Sellal. Since the campaign officially began, Algerians from all walks of life have been active and have organised across the country to oppose or support what has been commonly called Number Four, representing the number of terms the ailing President Bouteflika has been invited to serve.

While protests remain outlawed inside Algiers – since 2001 when protests by activists who travelled from the volatile Kabylia region in support of changes to the law on the Tamazight language, resulted in the death of a journalist as well as the destruction of property – in the rest of the country, marches and demonstrations have continued apace. Debates on the plethora of newly created TV stations have been heated and newspaper columns have once again revealed that beyond the surface the Algerian population is active, engaged and free – at least outside the capital – to protest. Another notable incident was when Sellal known for his irreverent humour, made what can be called a ‘regionalist’ joke about the Chaouis people from eastern Algeria. His remark sparked not only outrage but protest in the city of Batna forcing the premier to apologise, something pretty much unheard of in an Arab country.

But while the anti-government camp was vocal and active, in the run up to elections, pro-Bouteflika activists were also out in force to express support for a president they say brought a return to peace and stability in Algeria and invested heavily in life-improving infrastructural projects.

While both sides of the argument have some value, it is apparent where voting lies in Algeria. The anti-Bouteflika, Four camp are essentially educated, middle class people with access to the Internet, whose organisational skills depend heavily on social media. The Algerian diaspora in France, Canada and the US has also been vocal in its opposition to the fourth term.

Those who support Bouteflika’s re-election however, are essentially from smaller cities and from less affluent backgrounds. They spontaneously rally in support of their chosen candidate calling his adversaries ‘stooges in the hands of the West’. And, although the accusation of western interference is an old trick often exploited by those in power to bring the masses to heel, evidence has recently surfaced of some western governments funding specific groups that have emerged over the past few months and seen their sphere of influence develop at a striking speed, during that time.

Protests which turned violent in the city of Bejaia were immediately condemned by a press normally swift to support demonstrators over government officials. With several journalists attacked, one of whom remains in a critical condition, the consensus was a clear rejection of violence leading to a rapid return to calm in a part of the country known for its hostility to the ‘pouvoir’.

In all the kerfuffle that resulted from Bouteflika’s divisive decision, the voice of the other presidential hopefuls were drowned out completely. Many dropped out arguing that their presence as a contender only gave legitimacy to an already farcical election. Those who have remained namely former premier Ali Benflis or left wing Louisa Hannoune – both seasoned candidates – are promoting solid ideas no one is bothering to listen to.

So far, with the current president dominating the campaign landscape, the focus has been on what has been achieved over the past 15 years, as opposed to what needs to be done to move forward in the future. The president’s campaign has been about his own successes achieved during a sensitive period in Algeria’s history, a bizarre crusade centred around Bouteflika from which the candidate himself, was visibly absent.

HAFSA KARA-MUSTAPHA

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