Bouteflika after casting his ballot during the election last year. The wheel-chair bound president has not said if he plans to run again. Image Credit: Reuters

Dubai: Come April 2019, Algerians will head to the polls to elect a new president. However, a year before the election, a political impasse has been created in the country. There has been mounting speculation that President Abdul Aziz Bouteflika, who first came to power in 1999, will seek a fifth term. But, the 81-year-old, whose public appearances have been rare since he was partially paralysed by a stroke five years ago, has not said if he plans to run. Nor has he designated a successor.

For many Algerians, Bouteflika is a national hero. He is credited with ending brutal civil war of the 1990s, sparked when the army in 1992 cancelled elections that the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was poised to win. In his two decades in power, the president has used proceeds from Algeria’s immense oil and gas resources to fund a social safety net. Parliament is dominated by the president’s National Liberation Front (FLN). The secretary general of the FLN and Prime Minister Ahmad Ouyahia have announced their endorsement of Bouteflika to remain in office for a fifth term. Which begs the question: Why is it so difficult for the ruling elite to come up with feasible transition plan?

Who’s in control?

Analysts point to the fact that in Algeria, there are several elites, and they are involved in the process of determining who will be president. These include the political elite, the economic elite and, above all, senior members of the People’s National Army (PNA).

However, since he was elected in 1999, Bouteflika has managed to restructure political power around the office of the presidency and reshaped military-civilian relationship in his favour.

Speaking to Gulf News, Walid Namane, an analyst at Control Risks in Dubai, said: “Bouteflika’s supporters control the executive, legislature and judiciary. Should the president run for another term in 2019, political, military and business elites are likely to rally around his candidacy. Meanwhile, the country’s main opposition forces, divided and discredited, have been unable to rally around a coherent vision for a political transition. These factors have made it difficult to see the emergence of a feasible transition plan. For the time being, no credible opponent to Bouteflika has emerged with less than a year to go ahead of the election.”

Dr Dalia Ghanem Yazbeck, Resident Scholar at Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut, also believes the Algerian elite has to find one consensual figure to present to Algerians. “However, it is beyond argument that no Algerian presidential candidate can even run without the military’s approval, or to be more precise, without at least the approval of key military leaders.

Algerians refer to that process with the expression ‘djabouhoum’, meaning ‘they were brought to’. In a nutshell, presidents must have the support and approval of certain leaders and representatives of the PNA,” she said in an interview with Gulf News.

Dalia noted the military in Algeria is “ruling but not governing. It does so from atop a pyramid of power in which the interests of the military, the FLN leadership, and members of the political and economic elite are intertwined”.

Decision-making in Algeria remains opaque, and it is unclear which specific individuals or institutions wield the most power. But analysts like Namane say political developments between 2010 and 2018 — particularly the dismantling of the powerful Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS) in 2016 — led to “a redistribution of power in favour of a coalition between the presidency and its loyal military leadership”.

Bouteflika’s revolutionary past and diplomatic achievements in the 1970s under the presidency of Houari Boumediene still garner him support among older Algerians. Namane noted: “In addition, a considerable segment of society believes Bouteflika brought peace and stability to the country through the reconciliation process with Islamist armed groups in early 2000s. Meanwhile, the opposition remains weak and divided. Its leaders lack the resources and charisma to be able to mobilise Algerians around an alternative to the current government. Should the president run for another term in 2019, political, military and business elites are likely to rally around his candidacy.”

Economic reforms

Algeria is a country rich in human and hydrocarbon resources. However, despite attempts at privatisation and increasing foreign investment, it remains a closed economy. And Bouteflika has had a lot to do with this, given his social support programme. The implication is the people who want Bouteflika to stay for a fifth term also want Algeria to remain a closed economy. The public sector continues to be the primary employer for thousands of young Algerians who graduate every year. The country’s efforts to reduce its reliance on hydrocarbon revenues has had limited success.

Just last month, Algeria said it planned huge hikes to the fees for identity papers, passports and driving licences, as the government tries to ease pressure on state finances and secure new revenue sources.

The country has been facing financial pressure since crude oil prices started falling in mid-2014, halving its oil and gas revenue, which accounts for 60 per cent of state budget.

“The long socialist and protectionist tradition prevented the emergence of a dynamic private sector that could play a central role in reshaping the socioeconomic growth model,” Namane said. “Moreover, the government’s recent measures to restrict imports and the outflow of foreign currency have made it increasingly difficult for foreign companies to operate successfully in the country.”