On paper, Algeria’s presidential election, due to take place today, Thursday April 17, could plausibly be decreed the region’s most important in years. It is certainly treated as such in a number of western capitals, which have been sending discreet (and less so) water-testing missions for a while now. Algeria is a pivotal player on a number of key regional and international hot fronts: from counter-terrorism, to energy security, to migration, to the environment, to the tribulations of global capitalism. What happens to the country in the coming few weeks, months and years, will likely have repercussions far beyond the tidy confines of an electoral window.
And yet, anyone who has been paying attention to the April 17 countdown - particularly the circus histrionics of official campaigning since February - would be forgiven for thinking this was an inconsequential bit of provincial kabuki. The campaign has lurched from one farcical episode to the next, including off-mike indiscretions by campaign managers, popular electoral gatherings without any people in attendance, surreal TV ‘debates’ where bemused political dissidents are asked to choose between ‘Algeria’ and ‘Democracy', politically-estranged ministers criss-crossing the country in tandem campaigning for the same candidate, not to mention a runaway favourite whose public appearances are of such rarity they’ve turned into half-miraculous, half-macabre happenings.
Of course, rather than a credible contest pitting six viable pretenders, the 2014 elections were always destined to be a popular referendum on the past record - and future legacy - of the one candidate many have already accepted as the inevitable winner, presidential incumbent Abdelaziz Bouteflika. In power since his election to a first term in 1999, and already the country’s longest serving leader, the 77-year-old has had a rather eventful 12 months. Having suffered a minor stroke a year ago - which consigned him to a 3-month hospital stay in Paris - he has spent much of the period since his return in June 2013 trying to shore up his position at the helm of the Algerian governing ship. Seeing him as fatally weakened, many thought the prospect of a fourth term no longer thinkable, and the outspoken nature of such scepticism presaged a palace mutiny. Instead, Bouteflika took everyone by surprise with a brutal and wide-ranging summer reshuffle at the heart of the state apparatus, chiefly an attempt to cut his key rivals within the DRS (secret services), the FLN and the army, down to size. Whatever Bouteflika’s plans for 2014 were, a side-door gentle exit was not one of them.
Most of the traditional parties, of both Islamist and secularist tendencies have long ago announced their boycott of the elections, declaring them electoral frauds-in-waiting. However, the boycotters’ rallying cry has not been served by their past dalliances with the Bouteflika court, with both the RCD, a secular party largely anchored in the Kabylie region, and the MSP (the closest thing Algeria has to a Muslim Brotherhood franchise) having taken part in ruling coalitions during Bouteflika’s earlier terms in office.
Meanwhile, Ali Benflis, Bouteflika’s former ally and only serious rival, has clearly refused to accept the fait-accompli narrative. The Benflis candidacy has proven especially hard to decrypt for analysts. An Algiers-based activist told me he thought Benflis was a ‘roue de secour’ (a spare tyre) for the regime, “just in case”. However, everyone seems to agree that Benflis is a candidate with far too much pedigree to join a contest with a foregone conclusion. Indeed, he has been presenting himself in many ways as a “safe” alternative that would shake the nation’s political boat while ensuring it wouldn’t sink. Asked two days ago whether he was fomenting civil unrest with his warnings that millions would flood the streets if rigging took place, he declared “La stabilité, c’est moi!”. In this light, one cannot exclude the possibility, however remote, of an upset.
Unsurprisingly, Benflis’s message, and that of his fellow contenders, has been explicitly framed around the need for change – and his social media strategy has been openly, if rather ambitiously, mapped on Obama’s 2008 youth-courting triumph. However, having been Bouteflika’s campaign director in 1999 and his first prime minister before a famous falling-out, Benflis’s reincarnation as anti-system outsider has proved a tough sell for many, especially amongst the youth. He is hardly alone in this, of course. The vehemence of the disdain in which most of the population holds the political class is hard to exaggerate. One of the few consolations in an otherwise depressing political soap opera of bewildering mediocrity has been the emergence across social media of a vibrant and creative community of activists, artists and engaged citizens who have managed to channel their dissent into an entire countercultural ecosystem of spoofs, parodies and subversive political commentary that has captured the popular zeitgeist with its darkly inventive humour and youthful bravura.
Meanwhile, the authorities have struggled to keep pace. Having used violence and intimidation to crush dissent for decades, it has found it especially difficult to adapt to a new era where a policeman’s wayward baton is likely to end up in a YouTube exposé. The dependable spectres of “destabilisation”, “foreign hands” and “enemies of the revolution”, staple ingredients of official propaganda for decades, have lost their sobering mystique, and can today hardly be mentioned without evoking self-parodic connotations.
Faced with what seems like another meaningless electoral charade, with an outcome deemed both irrevocable and irrelevant, many in Algeria’s civil society - notably youth activists - have been trying their best to upset yet another coronation. March saw the first major street protests in the capital since 2011, with activists beaten and many arrested. Thousands marched in the Kabylie towns of Tizi-Ouzou and Bejaia on Tuesday. Yesterday, another sit-in of the Barakat (“Enough!”) movement in central Algiers was violently repressed. Although Barakat has attracted most of the headlines, especially those in international coverage, the truth is that grassroots movements across the country have been gathering strength and members for more than a decade. Last year, tens of thousands marched in cities across the South, demanding an end to regional economic injustice, in a movement that continues to grow.
Still, with no significant political opposition – not least the fragmentation between those against a Bouteflika fourth term and those advocating a wholesale boycott - and no prospects of any such coalition to emerge from the traditional parties anytime soon, it seems that Algeria’s ruling power structure – Le Pouvoir – the fluid but seemingly unmovable network of interests and alliances that has run the country since Independence, is destined to secure another victory by default. Whether by accident or by design, the decision by the Bouteflika camp to delay the announcement of his candidacy until the very last possible moment proved to be one of propitious political timing, leaving too little room for those opposing the fourth mandate to gather the necessary momentum to generate a meaningful opposition.
Bouteflika’s quest for a fourth term - in the face of precarious health troubles and mounting dissent from within - seems both mystifying and inevitable. Some have reached for cod psychological readings to explain such persistence, diagnosing a classic case of megalomania on the loose, a man so obsessed with his sense of historical mission that he is no longer capable, or willing, to see the writing on the wall - surrounded by ‘advisers’ with questionable judgement, who have their own vested interests to consider.
However, the more mundane truth is that Bouteflika’s fourth mandate gambit is not the result of a consensual choice by Algeria’s warring factions at the centre of power but rather its deferral for another day. The country’s ageing leadership is well aware that time is running out for it to salvage its historical legacy, yet has been so bereft of imagination, political courage and a sense of moral obligation towards future generations, that its only strategy seems to be to press ahead in its defence of the status quo, regardless of the costs. A number of national figures, notably former premier Mouloud Hamrouche, have called on key national players to safeguard the national interest and agree on a road map delineating a smooth transition towards democracy, a noble idea but one unlikely to be heeded anytime soon.
Later this year, on November 1, Algeria will celebrate the sixtieth anniversary since the launch of its victorious armed struggle to overthrow 132 years of French colonial rule. With the country having enjoyed more than a decade of booming oil revenues, and foreign reserves at a healthy 200 billion dollars, the 2014 elections offered a golden opportunity for the old guard to present the country’s youth with the parting gift of a new beginning and a fresh start. Instead, that golden opportunity seems set to be a wasted one. Once again, Algeria’s rising generation, like that of its glorious forebears in 1954, will have to do the job all by itself.