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Algerian election may be more about internal regime disputes

By Afro-Middle East Centre

As Algerians vote for in the third presidential election since incumbent president Abdelaziz Bouteflika was elected 1999, questions abound about the consequences of the poll for the country’s military-civil relations. Its outcome could significantly shape the short- and medium-term futures of Africa’s largest natural gas producer and second largest oil exporter.      

 Six candidates are in contention for the presidency, but the result is not in doubt. Bouteflika will be victorious, though not with the ninety per cent margin he secured in 2009. His main rival, former prime minister Ali Benflis, has already named fraud as the greatest threat to the election. The election’s legitimacy is also threatened by boycotts and voter apathy. The decision by Bouteflika (77) to stand for a fourth term, despite ailing health which had him spend three months in a French hospital last year for a ‘mini stroke’, and made him unable physically to participate in the campaign has galvanised the opposition. His campaign rallies were frequently disrupted and a ‘barakat’ (enough) campaign was initiated. The two main opposition parties – Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) and Movement for the Society of Peace (MSP) – called for a boycott, blaming a lack of transparency. However, these are unlikely to alter the result.

Bouteflika’s real challenges will be faced after the election. Unemployment and lack of basic services such as housing and health care have led to daily protests. The country’s 200 billion dollar reserves, which helped to quell the 2011 protest movement through increased subsidies and public sector salaries, will again allow him to address these problems in the short term. Another challenge will be the resuscitation of the industrial sector; its contribution to the GDP dropped from 25 per cent thirty years ago to five per cent. The need for investment in the hydrocarbons sector, accounting for 95 per cent of export and 70 per cent of government revenue, meant that significant state expenditure has been directed to that sector.

Bouteflika’s major challenge will be how he deals with the military, specifically the military intelligence service (DRS) directed by General Mohamed Mediene. Algeria is controlled by a cabal of military generals and various factions within the National Liberation Front (FLN), known simply as ‘le pouvoir’ (the power). These elements were instrumental in ensuring Bouteflika’s rise, and secured his presidency for the past fifteen years. However, there have been recent strains in these relations. Following a corruption scandal in 2013 (called Sonatrach II), two of his close allies, Chakeb Khelil and Mohamed Rida Hemche, were indicted, and Bouteflika shuffled his cabinet, ensuring that the ministers of interior, defence, justice and foreign relations were his loyalists.

He also used mandatory retirements and restructuring of the DRS to curb the institution’s powers. Major General Tartak Bachir, a key Mediene ally who headed the Internal Intelligence Agency (DSI), was replaced, while General Mhenna Djebbar was tasked with leading the agency which coordinates military affairs and controls expenditure, the Bureau d'Organisation. Key agencies, including the Service Central de Police Judiciaire (SPCJ), the Centre de la Communication et de la Diffusion, and the Direction Centrale de la Sécurité de l'Armee were removed from the DRS’s control and handed to the military chief of staff, a key Bouteflika ally, General Ahmed Gaid-Salah. The SCPJ’s transfer was contentious because it had been tasked with investigating corruption, and had been used by Mediene to eliminate Bouteflika’s associates. This culminated in the FLN’s secretary general, Amar Saidani, calling for Mediene’s resignation in February, accusing him of failure and of interfering ‘in activities of political parties, the judiciary and the press’.

The friction is unlikely to escalate publicly. Both men see political stability and protection of their interests as important. Algeria has managed to avoid the political instability caused by the uprisings which resulted in the collapse of long-time regimes in neighbouring Tunisia, and Libya. Calculations around this will inform the vigour of the friction, and will likely result in a protracted low-profile battle rather than a purge.

Despite assurances from Bouteflika’s campaign staff, his ill health means he will be unable to exercise his responsibilities. The constitution will likely be amended to create the position of vice president, allowing Bouteflika to choose a successor, thus continuing the path of other autocrats in the region. Algeria’s importance to the international community (specifically the USA and EU in the field of ‘counter terrorism’ and as an energy supplier), and its influence in the African Union, will mean that little opposition to the election and its consequences will be expressed by the international community.

Last modified on Thursday, 19 February 2015 14:04