Monday, November 20

Algeria faces uncertain future

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Despite health problems and the fact that ailing Abdelaziz Bouteflika is confined to a wheelchair, he won a fourth term in the presidential elections conducted last week. His landslide electoral victory should surprise no one. Bouteflika was widely expected to defeat his rival in the contest. Yet, his main rival, Ali Benflis, argued that the elections as marked by “fraud on a massive scale.”
Long time observers of Algerian politics suspect that Bouteflika would not run for elections in the first place. Since he suffered from a stroke last year, Bouteflika rarely made a public appearance. In fact, his decision to run for presidential election sparked a grassroots movement called Barakat (which means enough in Algerian dialect) to protest the decision of Bouteflika to stand for elections. For many Algerians, Bouteflika is a guarantee for stability in a country that was fraught in internal differences and suffered from a deadly civil war. More than anyone else, Algerians favor stability. They fear the spillover of the political anarchy in adjacent countries. Just two decades ago, Algerians were locked in a civil war that claimed as many as 250,000 lives.
That being said, Bouteflika is hardly convincing for many Algerians. He is 77 years old suffering from health problems. The opposition knew that chances are not great to unseat him. For this reason, they opted to boycott the election in order to discredit the process altogether.
But given the current situation and the low turnout, the fourth term is not expected to be a calm one. To be sure, the public discontent is visible and Bouteflika and his government need to take this in their account should they seek to head off protests. Like the “Arab Spring” countries, the Algerian economy is stagnant. A growing number of people are fed up with the failed official policies to deal with unemployment. The country is yet to take advantage of the oil revenue to increase the productivity of Algerians. But that is easier said than done. The state is still spending too much money on the patronage system. Worse, education and health care have been on the backburner. That state has not yet provided enough funds for these two important sectors. Needless to say, the country is fraught with cronyism and corruption.
Another challenge for Bouteflika in his fourth term is terrorism. While Algeria has thus far escaped the Arab Spring, it is still subject to threats from Al-Qaeda. The radical threat comes from Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups who have been seeking to overthrow the secular regime. Obviously, the changing regional environment and the problems in Egypt, Libya, and even Tunisia may boost terrorist groups who would in this case step up their operations.
If anything, the current economic situation and the security challenge may weaken the president and his government. More Algerians will ask questions that Bouteflika and his government cannot answer. But, it is not as if Algerian challenges are confined to the economic situation.
The current elections demonstrate that Algeria is not as calm as it looks. A closer look at the details of the elections and the figures shows that the level of popular discontent is, to say the least, high. For this reason, uncertainty is awaiting Algeria. Perhaps, the first year of Bouteflika’s fourth term will be decisive. Short of delivering the good and mitigating the public’s frustration, Bouteflika may face a disgruntled population when he is not as fit as he used to be.


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