Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika will run for a fourth consecutive term, his prime minister announced Sunday, paving the way for the 76-year-old who has not appeared in public since seeking treatment for a stroke in France last April to remain atop the North African nation’s vast military-intelligence apparatus a little longer. Indeed, the staying power of Bouteflika, a veteran of the Algerian fight for independence who won broad popularity after reducing tension in the wake of a civil war with Islamists upon taking the helm in 1999, is remarkable in a region where the Arab Spring has sewn the seeds of what are starting to feel like countless Islamist insurgencies and democratic uprisings over the past few years.
VISUAL CONTEXT: Electoral participation in Algeria is modest.
The question is whether a slight loosening in press controls and political freedom offered up in response to that trend might have shifted an electoral landscape that has been rather stale in recent years. Certainly, the fact that some 80 candidates have at least tentatively put their hats in the ring is promising, though most have yet to confirm their intentions since the incumbent made clear he wasn’t bowing out. Former P.M. Ali Benflis, who served alongside Bouteflika in the president’s first term and unsuccessfully challenged him in 2004, is probably the most serious threat, enjoying a certain amount of cache among younger voters and intellectuals.
But the big unknown here is not whether the opposition can put forward a credible alternative so much as how free and fair the elections, set for April 17, will be. Certainly, a still bed-ridden president whose most conspicuous presidential acts since suffering the stroke have been the firings of regional, cabinet, and intelligence officials — not the trademark deeds of a confident incumbent — will not be able to wow his admirers on the stump. An energetic rival, whether Benflis or some charismatic outsider, would surely be able to surpass the president’s own retail politicking efforts. But the power of the state in a country where the military and intelligence agencies still operate with virtually zero public accountability should not be underestimated. Bouteflika will almost surely emerge victorious, with the only question being just how it is he got there, seemingly immune to the pan-Arab generational moment that has enveloped the rest of the region.