The ailing health of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has been a source of concern for over four years. It has helped fuel speculation over who will succeed him and what could be in store for Algeria’s political future.
In late January two French deputies incited controversy following the release of a report concerning cooperation between Europe and North Africa. The report which was delivered in front of the National Assembly´s Foreign Affairs Committee took six months to complete and took aim at the leadership in Morocco, Tunisia and more pointedly, Algeria. The Socialist deputy, Jean Glavany, who had previously worked for President Francois Mitterrand, remarked that “it was striking that power in North Africa rests with men who are elderly, sick or ill.” On the topic of Algeria, the Republican Party deputy, Guy Teissier noted that “politically in Algeria, the question that preoccupies the mind, and all minds, is that of the succession of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was re-elected in 2014.”
One foot in the grave
As anyone who observes Algeria knows, the deputies’ findings reveal nothing new. Yet for the country´s political elite, mapping out Algeria´s future without President Bouteflika is laden with uncertainty, thus maintaining a business as usual approach has become a comfortable default position. Nevertheless, what is clear is that since early 2013, when Bouteflika was rushed to France to receive medical treatment following a stroke, it has been difficult to gauge to what extent he is in control of Algeria’s decision-making.
One alarming insight into the president´s condition was offered by the former French Interior Minister Jean-Louis Debré, who visited him in December 2015, and noted that: “he is tired in his armchair, very breathless, his voice weak,” Debré notes -”a small microphone glued to his mouth makes it easier to hear what he says. He has a lot of difficulties expressing himself.” In the meantime, his Prime Minister, Abdelmalek Sellal, has stepped in to represent him at numerous high level meetings and summits. There appears to be tremendous reticence among those closest to him to expedite any form of political transition. This is despite the fact that according to Article 102 of the new constitution, it is possible for heads of state to be impeached by the military in cases of a serious or long term illness.
On the other hand, despite his limited abilities, Bouteflika and those around him are working to present a robust image. One key example was his decision to give an interview to a business publication, the first for the leader since April 2013. The interview was conducted by the British economic publishing and consultancy firm the Oxford Business Group. In a confident tone, Bouteflika noted that new measures will be taken to “speed up the diversification of the economy,” and expressed his assurances that “everything is being done to encourage investment and business development, and to improve the business environment.” Moreover, in preparation for legislative elections, which are scheduled for May 4th, it was announced that as part of the High Independent Committee for election monitoring, Bouteflika announced the appointment of over 200 judges to oversee the electoral process.
Procrastination and delusion among Algeria’s leaders
In anticipation of the elections, the French conservative paper Le Figaro questioned if they will finally “awaken the Algerian political class from a coma.” To many inside the country, the actions hardly appear ground-breaking. One opposition candidate Ali Benflis, who was a candidate in the previous presidential election, announced that he would boycott the election and mentioned that “the political regime in place, has only one agenda and it is the agenda of survival.”
One important topic that Bouteflika and his government cannot gloss over is Algeria´s faltering economy. The hydrocarbon giant has been hit tremendously by the fall in oil prices. For this year´s budget, a raft of measures were introduced including cutting electricity subsidies and raising taxes on consumable products in a bid to raise revenue. These measures in turn have encouraged many Algerians to take to the streets and demonstrate. In response, the Minister for the Interior Noureddine Badawi threatened to “strike with an iron fist, whoever tries to destabilize the country´s security.”
While Bouteflika may tell outsiders that he hopes to “correct” Algeria’s global image, the lack of transparency that exists today leaves many frustrated, both inside and outside the country. Without providing any clear transition plan, observers must continue with baited breath as to what Algeria´s political future may entail. Unfortunately as of now, there does not seem to be anyone who is prepared to chart a new course.