Algeria’s incumbent president swept Thursday’s election, taking almost 82 percent of the vote in a country that doesn’t expect any change to come at the hands of the fourth-term president.
Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has secured a fourth term with 81.53 percent of votes, his Interior Minister Tayeb Belaiz announced on Friday. With 12.18 percent of the votes, rival Ali Benflis came in a far second, but he has refused to recognize the Bouteflika’s reelection.
When Bouteflika announced last month that he was running for a fourth term, it set off a political storm in the country. A new protest movement — Barakat, or “Enough!” — was formed and anti-Bouteflika protests emerged. Many called on him to step down, arguing that the ailing president can’t continue to rule the country, while some opposition groups called on voters to boycott Thursday’s election.
Nevertheless, when elections were held on Thursday, Bouteflika came out on top, extending his 15-year rule further into the future.
The authenticity of the vote, however, has been contested by some — even before election day.
“I don’t believe that the election will be honest. How many of these have you seen in the Western media?” William O. Beeman, professor and chair of the Anthropology Department at University of Minnesota, told MintPress News ahead of the elections. “Part of the reason is the West wants Bouteflika to win.”
Beeman explained that Bouteflika has “a long standing” with the United States, and offered rendition in Algeria during the George W. Bush administration.
Though the opposition had what Beeman calls “street power,” he said he didn’t expect them to win because that kind of power doesn’t translate to success and — perhaps more importantly — the opposition doesn’t conduct the elections.
Abuses and impunity
Algeria is located in Northern Africa, but it is often considered an Arab nation with a French culture. With a history of social movements and labor protests, University of Minnesota’s professor Beeman says protests are part of the culture.
In the months leading up to Thursday’s elections, however, the government’s move to silence and crack down on social unrest became a point of concern for several national and international human rights groups.
Bouteflika’s shortcomings, according to rights groups, include his failures to support laws that protect women from gender-based violence, address past political abuses and reform laws that encourage torture. They also note his poor treatment of opponents.
Nicola Duckworth, Amnesty International’s senior director of research, said the strategy of Algerian authorities has been to silence critics and any attempts to challenge the authorities or their records.
The government delayed issuing visas to foreign journalists in the months prior to the election. Last month, there was a government raid on Al-Atlas TV, a private station that has criticized the government on the air. The TV station was finally shut down on March 12. In Algeria, state media operate on full licenses, while private channels are issued temporary licenses that authorities can revoke without notice.
“As well as a crackdown on civil society, Algeria’s authorities have also failed to implement U.N. recommendations to close loopholes in existing laws that facilitate torture and ill-treatment. Safeguards against torture in Algerian law are currently woefully inadequate. This is compounded by a dire record of impunity when it comes to violations by the state, a tragic legacy of the country’s bloody internal conflict,”said Duckworth.
The government has also pushed back the retirement age.
“This is really terrible, the workers have been suffering for many years under increasing low wages and high unemployment. Government officials with high salaries manage workers with very low wages,” Beeman, the anthropology professor, said.
Last year, President Bouteflika was hospitalized for almost three month in Paris. Since then, the president has rarely addressed the public or even been seen in public. While seeking his fourth term, he let his protege run his campaign on his behalf.
In the days before the election, thousands of Algerians called for a boycott and a number of media outlets reported protests on the streets of the capital Algiers.
Before the election, one of Bouteflika’s opponents, former Prime Minister Ali Benflis, said the president’s poor health rendered him unfit to continue to lead the country.
One of his major supporters, former Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal, denied that Bouteflika is ill, adding that he was recovering and needed “some more days before he can walk well again,” the BBC reported.
Power and greed
First elected into office in 1999, Bouteflika, now 77, faced five political opponents in Thursday’s election. He won the last three elections by a wide margin, and has defeated some of this year’s opponents in previous elections, except first-time presidential candidate Abdelaziz Belaid.
Bouteflika’s supporters said Algerians favored him as a candidate because he helped to end the country’s civil war in the 1990s — a civil war in which about 100,000 people died after the military cancelled elections won by Islamists. Indeed, in the campaign leading up to Thursday’s election, he promised peace and reconciliation if elected.
His opponents and political analysts, however, alleged that the president was using state resources to gain an unfair advantage in the polls.
Whether those allegations were true or not, President Bouteflika was widely expected to win Thursday’s election with the support of his ruling National Front Party.
Political analysts say it’s unlikely that he’ll usher in much change in Algeria after all his years in power, though. At the peak of his political career in the 1990s, hopes were high that he would reconcile with the Islamists. But years of political and economic mismanagement in a country with about an unemployment rate hovering around 30 percent have eaten away at the public’s confidence in their president. Yet he still continues to sweep elections.
Protesting his candidacy
In addition to calls for a boycott on the election, protests came in various forms and from a number of angles.
“Workers are not afraid to confront public officials,” Professor Beeman told MintPress ahead of the election. “The difficulty they face now in the coming election is that Mr. Bouteflika is now being elected into his fourth term.”
In protest of Bouteflika’s announcement that he would seek a fourth term, former Prime Minister Ahmed Benbitour, politician Soufiane Djilali and retired army Gen. Mohand Tahar Yala withdrew from the presidential race. The three candidates reasoned that with Bouteflika in the race, the result was essentially already decided.
Former Prime Minister Sellal was forced to cancel a rally supporting the president in Bejaia, about 150 miles east of Algiers, when hundreds of stone-throwing protesters blocked streets.
Though Algeria has gone through several messy political upheavals under Bouteflika, his supporters maintained that of the candidates, Bouteflika was the best choice for president. Many of the 23 million registered voters were not expected at the polls on Thursday, but the incumbent president made it, pushed in on a wheelchair.
“President Bouteflika is best equipped to lead the country in this period of uncertainty and turbulence in the region,” campaign spokesman Amara Benyounes told the BBC.
Not all agreed, though. Opposition parties stressed that the government is run by, as the BBC put it, an “informal network of influential and unaccountable men who are keen to retain Mr. Bouteflika as front man.”
At a campaign rally, Col. Ahmed Bencherif, a former police commander and agriculture minister, accused the president’s brother, Said Bouteflika, of leading a political and financial “mafia” group that hijacked power when President Bouteflika was in the hospital in Paris.
Former Prime Minister Benflis said Algeria is ruled by one family, according to a BBC report. In 2008, the Bouteflika skillfully amended the country’s constitution to allow a sitting president to be re-elected indefinitely. In the 2009 election, he returned to power with a disputed 90 percent of the vote.
“I will be very, very surprised if the opposition is to win,” Beeman told MintPress News ahead of the elections. “The government will allow a small number of votes to be cast, to show that the process is ‘democratic.’”