Bouteflika debate consumes Algerian politics

Opponents question the ailing president’s fitness to govern, but critics say the country lacks a credible alternative.

Al Jazeera – 8 August 2014

Last month, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika surpassed the 100-day mark of his term after winning an unprecedented fourth mandate on April 17.

In other parts of the world, the 100-day point presents a convenient time to assess how a leader has fared in the first phase of a new mandate. In Algeria, however, debate remains mired on whether Bouteflika, 77, is fit to rule at all.

In early June, parliament approved a new five-year plan for infrastructure investment, and last month, the government completed a series of consultations on amendments to Algeria’s constitution. Both were overshadowed by questions on whether Bouteflika would survive his five-year term or be removed on the grounds of incapacity, and on who would replace him if he left mid-mandate.

“The main question at El Mouradia [the presidential palace] now is what happens after Bouteflika,” Abdenour Bakour, a spokesperson for Barakat, a civil society organisation that campaigned against Bouteflika’s fourth term, told Al Jazeera.

“The president is sick and he is not functioning. He is not really the president right now.”

The president’s supporters, meanwhile, have maintained that Bouteflika’s health is robust.

 ”The president is in good health and can perform his duties,” said Amar Saadani, secretary-general of the country’s largest party, the Front de Liberation Nationale, after Bouteflika was sworn into office in late April. “He spoke to citizens and took an oath. He is in possession of all of his physical and mental faculties.”

Even before the presidential election, Bouteflika, confined to a wheelchair after a stroke and other health challenges, rarely made public appearances or chaired cabinet meetings. He was unfit to run his own presidential campaign and incapable even of announcing his candidacy.

On April 4, just before the election, state television broadcast images of the president standing to greet visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry – but he was unable to repeat the feat at his investiture three weeks later, reading a prepared speech from the comfort of his wheelchair. So frail was the president that he could read no more than a few sentences.

There is nothing to suggest any improvement in his condition since. On Algeria’s July 5 Independence Day celebrations, Bouteflika made another public appearance, reaching from his wheelchair to lay a wreath for those who died in the independence struggle. Since Bouteflika’s re-election, most public state business has been carried out by his ministers, including the naming of new generals in early July – traditionally a key task for the president.

Anti-Bouteflika demonstrations that swelled before the April vote have since abated, but at the same time, political opposition has become more coordinated.

On June 10, a conference brought together around 500 opposition figures and most of the major opposition parties, including the Front des Forces Socialistes (FFS) and the Rassemblement pour la Culture et la Democratie (RCD), among others. Also present were former prime ministers Ali Benflis, who ran against Bouteflika, and Mouloud Hamrouche, who spoke out against the president before the election.

The conference was designed to “save the nation”, according to Ahmed Benbitour, a former prime minister who boycotted the election. A united opposition, he said, would prepare the way for a “political transition”. Prior to the election, opposition parties had been unwilling to cooperate.

“The only good thing Bouteflika has done is to force the opposition to talk to each other,” Bakour said. “For the first time, we’re seeing them speaking to each other.”

The conference was derided, however, by observers who say these disparate groups cannot unite effectively to oppose the regime.

“I don’t think they’re a credible opposition movement that can sustain themselves in the future,” independent politician Kamal Benkoussa, who withdrew from the election race after Bouteflika declared his candidacy, told Al Jazeera. “The FFS and the RCD are useless. The only reason they are together is they are weak by themselves.” Neither party responded to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on the matter.

Hugh Roberts, an expert on Algerian politics at Tufts University in the US, suggested the opposition groups were “putting the cart before the horse”.

“You start with a proposal and build support around it, but no one is putting forward anything as far as I can see,” Roberts told Al Jazeera.

The effectiveness of the opposition movement is also proscribed by a regime that successfully engineered the re-election of Bouteflika and retains all control in Algerian politics. “The Algerian president is elected by an electoral college, the composition of which is a state secret,” Roberts noted. “There are multiple candidates [in the election], but it’s already decided who will win.”

Meanwhile, the government is pushing its own programme of political change.

Last month, former prime minister Ahmed Ouyahia completed a process of consultations involving a host of political stakeholders on proposed amendments to Algeria’s constitution. The proposals include restoring a two-term limit to presidential mandates – the restriction was removed in 2008 to allow Bouteflika to run for a third term in the 2009 election – and enshrining the right to peaceful demonstrations and freedom of the press.

Still, many members of the opposition remain sceptical that any of this will spur fundamental change.

“Ouyahia is trying to do his best to show that everything is okay,” Bakour said. “The constitutional reform process and the opposition meetings are making a beautiful decor while the military makes the real decisions.

“If you’re going to believe a regime that has being lying to its people for 50 years, then it’s on you,” he added. “I don’t think the regime has any real intention of changing.”

Bakour says the poor state of Bouteflika’s health warrants invoking Article 88 of the constitution, which provides for fresh elections in the case of a president’s death or incapacity. If parliament confirms the state of impediment by a two-thirds majority, and it persists for 45 days, the constitution provides for the presidency to be declared vacant and elections to be held within 60 days.

“The Algerian constitution is very clear about incapacity, and the evidence is very clear about the incapacity of Bouteflika to run the country,” Bakour said. “If we apply the constitution for once, if we are a republic, we need elections to be called now and happen within 60 days. But I don’t think they will do that.”

This article was originally published by Al Jazeera. To view the original article, click here.

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Richard Nield is a freelance journalist, photographer and filmmaker covering the Middle East and Africa. In 10 years covering the region, he has been published and broadcast by clients including the BBC, Reuters, Al Jazeera, The Economist, The Financial Times, The Independent and Foreign Policy magazine. He has reported from throughout the region, including Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, South Sudan, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.