Algeria’s 22.8mn electorate is heading to the polls on April 17 with a sense of 'déjà vu' to choose among 6 candidates running for the presidency including the three-term serving incumbent 77-year old Abdelaziz Bouteflika. By fielding his candidacy, an ailing Bouteflika, who has been rarely seen in public after suffering a stroke in April 2013, surprised many by backtracking on statements made in the past on the necessity of transferring power from an aging generation of revolutionary fighters in the war for independence from France to a younger generation that was interpreted at the time that he plans to step down.
His candidacy triggered the withdrawal of Ahmed Benbitour, former prime minister, and Mohand Tahar Yala, a retired army general, from the presidential race amidst allegations of vote “piracy with legal backing” and expected vote rigging. While allegations of electoral fraud is hardly a novelty in the context of Algerian politics, the fact that they are being voiced by insiders to the “pouvoir” - the term Algerians use to encapsulate the security chiefs, senior bureaucrats and regime cronies - and being reported by major state-owned national dailies may reflect factional fighting within the governing circle.
According to a report in London-based The Economist, on the one side stands a group of influential insiders supporting an ailing Bouteflika, a stalwart of the Front Liberation National (FLN), the revolutionary movement that runs the country since independence, and a foreign minister between 1963 and 1979. They seem to be working in alliance with Vice Minister of Defense and Army Chief of Staff, Ahmed Gaid Salah.
While the opposing camp is reportedly being run by General Toufik Mediane, the chief of Algeria’s main intelligence agency, Department du Renseignment et de la Securite, who has been running the service for over two decades with broad responsibility over security, including counter-terrorism, during the Islamist insurgency in the 1990s. In recent months, his agency has been accused by Amar Saadani, the secretary general of the FLN, of meddling in civilian politics.
Since Bouteflika announced his candidacy, strangely by Algerian standards where demonstrations are banned, sporadic nationwide demonstrations have erupted including in the capital Algiers against the incumbent president standing for a fourth-term. The mostly peaceful protests facing heavy clampdown by the police have been organized by a group of civil rights activists including journalists under the banner of “Barakat” or Enough. It has resonances of Kefaya, the Egyptian civil rights movement that got going in the late 2000s and was instrumental in mobilizing the youth against deposed President Mubarak’s rule in 2011.
With the election date fast approaching and an assortment of remaining candidates seen as political light weights compared to a historical statesman of Bouteflika’s caliber, there may be more to Algeria’s presidential elections than first catches the eye.
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