Round Five for President Bouteflika?

Round Five for President Bouteflika?

Despite serious health problems, Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika may stand for a fifth term in office, leaving many to question if the country’s political elite are bereft of a feasible transition plan.

Perhaps little else could illustrate the sclerotic nature of Algerian politics than the news in late April:  the secretary general of the ruling party, the National Liberation Front (FLN), Djamel Ould Abbes, Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, and other key officials, announced their endorsement for President Bouteflika to remain in office for a fifth term. Elections are due to take place in April 2019, and at present, the 81-year-old incumbent will be running uncontested.

Bouteflika’s health has been a concern as far back as 2005 when rumours emerged that he was suffering from stomach cancer. Yet after a suffering a stroke in 2013, it has been an undeniable fact that the president has been unable to maintain an active role in day-to-day affairs. Much of this has fallen to his prime ministers. Nevertheless, veteran UN diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi was keen to stress that then ‘president enjoys all his mental and intellectual abilities’ and he also received the support of the country’s largest trade union, the General Union of Algerian Workers. Speculation over next year’s election has grown, since the president – while confined to a wheelchair – recently made a series of public appearances, which included the inspection of a mosque in the capital Algiers and the opening of two metro extensions.

Economic Woes

Since 2014, Algeria has been gripped by periodic social unrest, which has been linked in large measure to the fall in earnings from its energy sector, which accounts for 95% of export revenues. As of last year, unemployment had risen to 11.7% and the government has had difficulty in covering the cost of subsidies for food and housing that in years past were critical in keeping government opposition at bay. Since the start of the year, teachers and doctors have been engaged in strikes calling for higher wages and better conditions. The government was forced to limit imports of food, mobile phones and some household items. With recent improvements in the oil price, the government is expected to increase spending in this year’s budget by 6%. Although some commentators believe that this is simply a measure to ‘smooth over rising tensions within society’, as discussions around Bouteflika’s fifth term take shape. Even OPEC believes that oil prices may need to be higher in order for Algeria to balance its budget.

Unfortunately, the current president has proven reluctant to adopt measures that would effectively stimulate and diversify the economy. As far back as the 1970s, Algeria’s rulers have been wary of the private sector and foreign investment. It has maintained a statist model, which has created bureaucratic hurdles for entrepreneurs. In a bid to invigorate the economy and boost exports, prime minister Ouyahia, outlined plans as part of this year’s budget to grant concessions of agricultural land, as well as providing franchise contracts to foreign investors. Bouteflika vigorously opposed the plan and chose to delete the article from the draft text. It is possible that Ouyahia will avoid such proposals in future, as his predecessor, Abdelmajid Tebboune, was last year removed from his post after just three months for attempting to address corporate influence within the political sphere.  A move that was not appreciated by Bouteflika loyalists such as businessman Ali Haddad, who is the CEO of the road, hydraulic and building works company, known as the ETRHB Haddad Group and is close to the president’s brother Said.

The Risk of Uncertainty

Of the last two electoral campaigns, which took place in 2009 and 2014, writer James McDougall notes they ‘were notable only for the political class’s failure to use them as opportunities to address the country’s systematic malaise’. Forty percent of the population is under the age of 25 and while many young Algerians are frustrated with the status quo, there appears to be little effort taken by the government to address this growing apathy.  There are some individuals who vehemently oppose the idea of the president running again. Zoubida Assoul, who heads the Union for Change and Progress (UPC), urged Algerians to demonstrate their opposition and went as far as to add; ‘the presidential clan has failed on all fronts’, while the president of the political party, Rally for Culture and Democracy, Mohcine Belabbas, said Algeria doesn’t need a president, ‘who is presented episodically to deceive opinion about his good health’.

The last time Bouteflika addressed the country was six years ago and many question what machinations are occurring behind the scenes. A few years back, former prime minister Ali Benflis said that Bouteflika’s poor health had, ‘left a “vacancy of power” that allowed a clan around him to take control’. The president has not declared if he will seek another term in office, but the opacity surrounding the governing elite only raises questions as to who is really in control of decision making.

About Author

Emily Boulter

Emily Boulter is a Rotterdam-based writer, who is also the creator of the current affairs blog "From Brussels to Beirut". Previously, she worked as an assistant for the vice-chair of the foreign affairs committee in the European Parliament.