Algeria’s septuagenarian leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika is widely expected to win an election on Thursday that would allow him to start a fifth presidential term.
While elections in the North African country are more a ceremonial affair, organized to legitimize the ruling National Liberation Front’s monopoly on power, it is likely that a majority of Algerians would rather Bouteflika stayed in power than risk a repetition of the unrest that started in 1991 when an Islamist party looked likely to win the election. The fear of an Islamist takeover prompted a civil war that lasted more than a decade.
Bouteflika, who served as Algeria’s foreign minister between 1963 and 1978, has been in office since 1999 and presided over the end of the civil war in 2002.
A constitutional amendment enacted in 2008 allowed Bouteflika to serve a third term. In an election the following year, he supposedly won over 90 percent support. Officially, turnout was 74 percent but the American embassy in the country put it at 30 percent at most, a diplomatic cable leaked by WikiLeaks revealed.
Too many Algerians probably want to avoid a repeat of the 1990s, when tens of thousands died in the conflagration, to demand free and fair elections. Even so, dissatisfaction with the country’s secretive regime, which is believed to be run by veterans of its war of independence against France who still occupy top military and security posts, appear to be rising. Authorities shut down a privately-owned television station last month for criticizing the government. Demonstrations are carefully watched by police officers in plain clothes. Several planned rallies in support of Bouteflika had to be canceled due to security concerns.
The president himself has not appeared at a single campaign event. Since he suffered a stroke in April of last year, the aging leader has struggled to stand and speak in public.
As Bouteflika looks less capable of heavy-handed leadership, cracks have started to appear in the previously unified ruling class’ facade.
After his reelection in 2009, Bouteflika tried to establish a more independent presidency, apparently to rein in his powerful intelligence chief, General Mohamed Mediène, a hardliner who has been in office since 1992. He tried to remove Ali Tounsi, the national police chief and a Mediène ally, in 2009 — who refused to step down. The following year, Tounsi was assassinated. Newspaper articles than appeared that accused the president’s brother, Said, of corruption. Earlier this year, Amar Saïdani, a Bouteflika loyalist and chairman of the National Liberation Front, suggested in an interview that Mediène had played a role in the 1992 assassination of President Mohamed Boudiaf.
Public dissent is kept in check by generous welfare spending, financed by oil and natural gas exports. This allows the country to alleviate poverty and unemployment, two of the factors that contributed to “Arab Spring” uprisings in neighboring countries. But when hydrocarbon revenues dry up, the government can ill afford to stave off liberal reforms, including abolishing price ceilings and tariffs, that would expose the Algerian population to fluctuations in international fuel and food prices — a third factor in the regionwide unrest of 2010 and 2011 that led to the removal of other longtime North African rulers, including Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.