April 17, 2014 6:57 pm

Algerians go to polls as Bouteflika seeks fourth presidential term

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Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika©AFP

Algerians have been voting in an election which is widely expected to hand a fourth term to Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the ailing president who has been rarely seen in public since he suffered a stroke last year.

Mr Bouteflika, who is 77, has been too frail to campaign, leaving it to his lieutenants to tour the country on his behalf, but he is still expected to win over five other candidates competing for the leadership of the North African country, a key exporter of natural gas to Europe.

On Thursday Algerian television showed pictures of the president arriving in a wheelchair to cast his ballot.

Mr Bouteflika, who has been at the helm since 1999, is backed by the powerful military and by a business class believed to have amassed large fortunes following dramatic expansion in public spending and imports funded by enormous hydrocarbons revenues over the past 15 years.

Since his stroke the president has made few public appearances, but analysts say his powerful backers in military and intelligence circles want him to remain to preserve the status quo.

The murky ruling establishment – dubbed “le pouvoir” (the power) by Algerians – is also believed to want another Bouteflika term to defer the likely succession battles when he exits the scene.

In 2008, after infighting within ruling circles, Mr Bouteflika was allowed to change the constitution in order to abolish presidential term limits.

Ali Benflis, a former prime minister and considered Mr Bouteflika’s main challenger in this election, has warned of fraud and said he would not stay silent if the election was rigged. He said he had an “army” of 60,000 monitors watching the poll at voting stations on his behalf.

A handful of opposition parties, including moderate Islamists, called for a boycott. But a low turnout is more likely to be the outcome of popular alienation from an opaque and antiquated system in place since independence from France in 1962.

On Wednesday, police violently dispersed a small protest in Algiers called by Barakat (Enough), a new movement founded this year after Mr Bouteflika announced his plans to seek a fourth term.

However, observers say the president enjoys a measure of public support because of his role in helping restore peace after a decade of political violence in the 1990s, unleashed by the army’s cancellation of an election to prevent an Islamist party from winning.

Massive oil and gas revenues during his tenure have also allowed the government to spend lavishly on subsidies, job creation in public works projects and salary increases. This has eased unemployment which has fallen to 10 per cent from 30 per cent when he came to office.

However, youth unemployment is still high at 25* per cent, and anger at the shortages of jobs, housing and opportunities regularly boils over into small protests across the country.

*This has been amended from the original article to correct the figure.

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