Arab Spring Survivor Keeps Algerians Guessing as Election Nears

The cartoon in one of Algeria’s biggest independent newspapers depicted an empty wheelchair trundling down a highway then swerving off course, under the caption “Presidential Elections 2014!”

The sketch summed up the two biggest unknowns hanging over the vote scheduled for April 17: How sick is President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 76, following a stroke last year, and when will the man who has dominated politics for almost a generation announce if he’s to stand for a fourth term?

The uncertainty risks undermining stability in a country that’s the third-largest supplier of gas to the European Union and has mostly avoided the turmoil that has wracked the Arab world over the past three years.

“The state is on auto-pilot,” said James D. Le Sueur, a professor of history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and author of Algeria Since 1989: Between Terror and Democracy. “Cartoonists are loving this situation. It’s a funny game for them, but it doesn’t bode well for Algerian society.”

Protests that unseated long-serving autocrats in nearby Tunisia, Egypt and Libya from early 2011 skirted Algeria as a weak opposition and memories of the civil war in which as many as 150,000 people died muted calls for an overhaul of the state.

In an attempt to placate social unrest, including protests over unemployment, the government raised the minimum wage by a fifth and pledged to spend $54.9 billion on new homes following the Arab uprisings.

Oil Slump

That threatens to stretch finances at a time when concerns about terrorist attacks on energy facilities -- which included a strike on a gas plant run by BP Plc -- corruption probes at the state-owned Sonatrach energy group and delays in exploration have sapped the nation’s economic lifeblood.

The country of 38 million people, which depends on energy sales for two-thirds of government revenue, pumped crude last year at the lowest level since 2003.

Bouteflika, who spent several months convalescing in a Paris hospital following his illness, has made few public appearances since returning home.

He last shuffled his cabinet in September, when more than a third of ministers lost their jobs and top posts went to allies. In a move seen as an attempt to sideline an adversary, he also stripped the Department of Intelligence and Security of some responsibilities.

Spy Chief

On Feb. 3, Amar Saidani, secretary-general of Bouteflika’s ruling National Liberation Front, known by its French acronym FLN, stepped up the challenge, demanding the resignation of spy chief General Mohamed Mediene. That was the first time in five decades that a leader of a political party has publicly attacked an institution of the army, one of the region’s largest and a key element of the nation’s power structure.

If he announces his candidacy, “the presidential clan will do everything so Bouteflika secures a fourth mandate, and in that case he’d nominate a vice-president who could govern in his absence,” said Rachid Grim, an independent political analyst in Algiers. “If he doesn’t run, they’ll have to find someone trustworthy and among the candidates Benflis is the most serious contender.”

Ali Benflis, a former FLN secretary-general, ran against Bouteflika in 2004 and has declared he’ll contest this year. So have opposition leader Ahmed Benbitour and dozens of others. Candidates must register by March 4.

Independence Generation

At least four political parties have called on Bouteflika to stand, and the FLN has said several times since October that he’s their only candidate.

“This election is unique because we don’t know if the main claimant is going to present himself or not, even though hundreds of other people have said they want to run,” Hicham Baba Ahmed, the cartoonist at El Watan newspaper who created the wheelchair image, said in an interview.

Three former ministers said on Feb. 10 that Bouteflika is too frail to run and called for a boycott should he decide to do so. They include former Foreign Minister Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi, who stood for the presidency 15 years ago.

Algeria has been governed since 1962 by the generation that fought colonial ruler France and won independence. Bouteflika, who has ruled for 15 years, first took office in 1999 toward the end of the conflict with Islamist insurgents. International observers have described previous presidential polls as marred by fraud.

Election Strategy

Bouteflika and his allies argue continuity is needed to see off a growing threat from al-Qaeda-linked militants, who attacked BP’s In Amenas gas plant last year, killing dozens of workers. His opponents say official corruption poses a bigger danger to the nation.

The president’s reticence to rule himself in or out of the ballot may be part of a strategy designed to maintain control of the pre-election debate, said Le Sueur, the U.S. professor.

“Keeping people wondering if Bouteflika is going to get out of his wheelchair and run or not ensures they don’t start talking about the political reforms that everyone else in the region is talking about,” he said.

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