WASHINGTON— When U.S. Secretary State of John Kerry visits Algiers next week, he will find a country torn over a presidential election in which aging incumbent; Abdelaziz Bouteflika is seeking fourth term despite concerns over his health.
The president has declared he is fit to govern. He has also promised reforms if elected and pledged to make the oil and gas-rich nation more democratic by amending the constitution. But both the country’s largest legal Islamist party, the Movement of Society for Peace, and the liberal Rally for Culture and Democracy party have both said they will boycott the April 17 election.
Marina Ottaway, a senior fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington says real political reforms are unlikely any time soon.
“You are dealing with a very old, sick president who is incapable of launching a dynamic process of reform and there is no real competition because Bouteflika has the support of the security services and has good relations with the military, the real holder of power,” Ottaway said.
Bouteflika, who will be running for his fourth five-year term, is relying on his prime minister to lead his campaign after a stroke last year left the 77-year-old in a wheelchair and barely able to speak.
While five other candidates are running for the presidency, Bouteflika is the overwhelming favorite and he has the power of the state supporting his campaign. He gathered four million signatures in support for a fourth term.
"With such orchestrated popular support, the April 17 presidential election is almost won in advance," added Ottaway.
A safe choice?
Bouteflika’s supporters see his re-election as a guarantee for stability. They credit him with leading Algeria out of the civil war in the 1990’s that left an estimated 200-thousand Algerians dead.
There have been scattered protests against a fourth term for Bouteflika, but an overwhelming security presence has prevented any mass opposition from developing.
Anwar Haddam, a former member of the Algerian parliament from the banned Islamic Salvation Front, who heads the exile opposition group, the Algerian Movement for Liberty and Social Justice, says despite Bouteflika being an overwhelming favorite, there is room for a political opening in the April 17 vote.
“Unlike what happened in previous elections where the military and security institutions backed the same candidate, this time around one supported Bouteflika and the other supported his major rival; former Prime Minister Ali Benflis. Benflis opened his campaign also with a promise to create a more democratic state and a new constitution where parliament would have real power with an independent judiciary system,” he said.
However, Haddam says Benflis comes from the same aging elite of the National Liberation Front (FLN) party that has manipulated political life for decades and he lost a previous election to Bouteflika in 2004 by a landslide.
The Islamist party, the Movement of Society for Peace, and the liberal Rally for Culture and Democracy party, who are boycotting the election have pledged to hold a conference on Algeria's political transition ahead of the election.
Haddam says Algeria is long overdue for a political debate about which way the country is heading.
“Algerians from all walks of life agree that there is a need for a real transition to democracy not just another election,” he said.
Haddam says despite the apparent political stagnation there are serious on-going discussions between the opposition and elements from the military and security services over how to draft a democratic, inclusive constitution that would define the ultimate role of the military and outline a transition to democracy.
He says the key to reform is the army. But he says before any reform occurs Algeria’s political leaders will have to define a new role for the military.
“From an opposition point of view, we believe that the real holder of power is the army, so it is natural to envision an important role in supporting a gradual transition toward democracy and that requires a change in the nature of the military-civilian relationship,” he said.
Haddam says he believes a key reform would be for the military to be under civilian authority and oversight.
With analysts saying Bouteflika will be reelected there are several scenarios for post-election Algeria.
There is rampant speculation that the ailing Bouteflika would leave power before the end of his five-year term and a vice president will take over. But that scenario would require a constitution amendment to create posts for one or two vice presidents, something that could take time to enact, causing yet more political stagnation.
Marina Ottaway says there is a general feeling in Algeria that real political change will only take place once Bouteflika leaves office, either through incapacitation or death.
“His departure will end an era of legitimacy based on leaders of the Algerian war of independence and the transition to a new generation whose legitimacy is a vision for the future,” she said.
Ottaway says a general resistance to change by Bouteflika’s generation has blocked efforts to revitalize the economy which has largely remained under state-control – something Ottaway warns could spark Arab Spring type protests if reform does not come soon.
“With approximately 70 percent of the population under 30, a high unemployment rate in excess of 20 percent and without real reform to open the political space, Algeria could witness the very popular uprisings that took place in the neighborhood,” said Ottaway.