Only days ago, Algerian voters still expected to go to the polls in April 2019 to elect their next president. On 28 October 2018, Djamel Ould Abbes, chairman of the ruling National Liberation Front (Front de Libération Nationale, FLN), declared that the incumbent president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, is the party’s designated candidate for the elections. Shortly after confirming that he would seek another fifth five-year term, thousands have taken to the streets to demand that the country’s president abandon his candidacy and step down.
Though Bouteflika finally announced he would not seek a fifth term and delayed the presidential polls in the gas-rich North African country, the protests have now entered their fourth week, driven by a widespread anger at the current incumbent’s apparent attempt to cling on to power. To make thigs worse, Bouteflika has also told his nation that he would stay on until a new constitution is adopted, meaning he is likely to stay in power for up to another five years.
Bouteflika, who was first elected in 1999 and is the longest serving Algerian head of state, would have normally faced no obstacles to be re-elected, apart from his advanced age, 81, and deteriorating health: with the non-existence of any real opposition, the other candidates posed no threat to him. Despite the fact that the incumbent has been weak since suffering a stroke in 2013 – which led to a reduction in the number of public appearances he makes, during which he is seen in a wheelchair – for months, Bouteflika’s camp had been calling for him to be elected for a fifth term.
The political and economic endorsement for Bouteflika’s fifth term revealed something other than just unconditional subordination to the president. The situation is plausible only up to the point that there is no alternative and no consensus among the different power groups as to a new candidate. According to a prominent intellectual on Algeria, the attempt to maintain Bouteflika in power does not mean that the Algerian system is based on the influence of a single person. Conversely, the maintenance of Bouteflika means the guarantee of a very dynamic system, based on different interests and groups that want to prepare a transition that does not shake the fundamentals of the system.
And as this ruling system has been sustained by his inner cicle, the demonstrators are understandably seeking not only to rid of Bouteflika but also to unseat his inner circle. But whatever the fading Bouteflika’s fate, in order to alleviate the grievances of the people, the ruling elite should make the populace more aware of the state’s budget and of how its financial resources are distributed. Up to now, there are still no official declarations or data on the state’s sovereign wealth fund, which is believed to have been exhausted in 2017. Transparency is even more vital when taking into account that the government will need to implement austerity measures to reduce public expenditure.
Even if oil prices did recover last year, reaching 50–60 US dollars per barrel, it is not clear whether this trend will continue in the future. In addition, Algerian production of hydrocarbons has declined (and is not expected to rise in the long term), which has led to a spike in inflation. In this light, the austerity measures that need to be put in place will involve significant cuts to state subsidies – to the detriment of around 10 percent of the population, which is considered to be vulnerable and at risk of falling back into poverty.
For any future government in Algeria, these measures will therefore have to be implemented carefully while also taking important regional disparities into account. Thus, either Bouteflika with his entourage, or a new government that may arise from the current political upheaval, will now be under enormous pressure to impose crucial reforms while at the same time possibly facing resistance from the elites (in the fight against corruption) and from the population at large (with regard to the subsidy cuts).
‘Bouteflika’s Uncertain Fifth Term’ – Commentary by Francesca Caruso – Barcelona Centre for International Affairs / CIDOB. (The Commentary can be downloaded here)