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cc A ZWith Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika facing ill health, speculations are arising as to whether he will participate in the elections scheduled for next year and whether real change will shift the prevailing status quo whether he stays in power or does not

With Algeria’s president recovering in a Paris hospital from a mini-stroke, observers are questioning his continued ability to govern and whether he will run again in the next elections scheduled for May 2014.

Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 76, is currently serving his third five-year mandate since first being elected in 1999. But since 2005 rumours have swirled that he is suffering from cancer, claims the regime denies. Algeria is a country where power divisions are very complex. The president, along with the Department of Intelligence and Security, better known by its French initials, DRS, are known as ‘le pouvoir’ (‘the power’). The president’s absence does not necessarily create a power vacuum: many analysts allege that real power rests with the DRS.

‘Much [not everything"> depends on whether or not Bouteflika will run again,’ claimed Baya Kara, a former Algerian deputy of parliament and an elections expert. Algeria’s constitution limits neither the president’s age nor the number of terms, an amendment Mr Bouteflika engineered in November 2008. The rulebook stipulates, however, that the president’s health must enable him to carry out his duties, a provision that the rubber-stamping parliament has ignored for years.

‘If Bouteflika runs, we will know the outcome of the elections beforehand,’ Ms Kara added. ‘It would mean that Bouteflika would serve a fourth term as Algeria’s president.’ If Mr Bouteflika does not run, the political field may widen because two of Algeria’s most important political figures, once considered likely presidential candidates for 2014, left politics earlier this year.

Ahmed Ouyahia, once a prime minister under Mr Bouteflika, was forced to resign on January 3rd 2013 from his position as secretary-general of the National Rally for Democracy (RND); then a few weeks later, on February 1st, Mr Bouteflika’s party, the National Liberation Front (FLN), fired Abdelaziz Belkhadem as the party’s secretary-general. Both parties form the ruling coalition.

Yet many analysts see their dismissals as a superficial regime strategy to prove that there is indeed political change. Their removals are designed to appease a citizenry that is fed up with an old guard that has clung to power for decades. Mr Bouteflika has been in power for nearly 14 years. General Muhammad Mediène, widely known as Toufiq, has directed the DRS for more than 20 years, making him the world’s longest-serving intelligence chief.

The patience of some senior political figures is also running thin. Recently, Ahmed Benbitour, a former prime minister and now a presidential candidate, openly challenged Mr Bouteflika and called for his retirement. Mr Benbitour insisted that political and electoral reforms have to start with a new president.

‘In Algeria you cannot change the entire system of government without including the presidency,’ he said during an interview with Al Jazeera on April 6th 2013. This confrontational stance has boosted his popularity ratings amongst Algerians, especially within elite circles, where many would like to see him as the president in future.

Though the political field appears to be more open, this could be another game of smoke and mirrors. Many observers question whether anything has changed in this North African nation. Algeria managed to resist the radical political transformation that swept its neighbours after the 2011 Arab spring. At the height of these mass protests, Mr Bouteflika announced the creation of a National Commission for Consultation on Political Reforms to launch constitutional changes while sidestepping more radical reforms. Though he promised to reform the electoral system, too, political pundits belittled this new body’s independence because the president appointed the commission’s three heads.

Despite this lack of independence, the commission has implemented some reforms. The interior ministry has accredited more political parties, suggesting greater plurality, at least superficially. Before the May 2012 elections, ten new political parties competed for the 462-seat lower house of parliament; the interior ministry accredited ten more parties before local elections held on November 29th 2012.

The commission also established two new electoral oversight bodies, the National Electoral Commission and a judiciary committee, which answer to the interior ministry. The commission has given women more elective offices as one-third of every list of elected officials must be women. Algeria’s lower house of parliament now includes 146 women, the highest number in the Arab world.

The judiciary committee’s main task is to ensure that the electoral process is legal. But many lawyers who are known to have close ties to the governing regime serve on this committee and compromise its independence.

Despite the two new electoral oversight bodies, the interior ministry still has the final say over elections. It is closely aligned to the DRS, considered one of the cruellest intelligence bodies in the world, infamous for allegedly committing severe human rights abuses, particularly during the Algerian civil war in the early 1990s.

Analysts such as Ms Kara question the government’s sincerity to implement real electoral reform. ‘The regime’s strategy of making the political scene appear more open is just getting more complex and elaborate,’ she says. While Ms Kara lauds the introduction of two new electoral oversight bodies, she criticises their limited authority and impact.

The interior ministry permitted only 500 international election monitors to observe the 2012 parliamentary elections. The Carter Center, an American institute that monitors human rights, sent only two people. The Washington-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) sent five pre-election assessors and seven long-term observers. Such limited size ‘did not permit the institute to cover a significant portion of Algeria’s 45,000 polling sites’, acknowledged NDI’s election observation report.

While the interior ministry permitted more political parties to participate in the elections, most could not get past the 7 percent vote requirement needed to win parliamentary seats. So though the campaign appeared to be more open, the incumbent ruling coalition—the FLN and the RND—won the parliamentary polls again, as well as the local elections held on November 29th 2012.

This restrictive electoral environment led to a foreseeably low voter turnout, indicating limited public faith in the elections. Algerian officials declared a final turnout of 43 per cent during the parliamentary elections. However, 18.2 percent of ballots were deliberately spoiled, indicating a substantial protest vote. ‘Algerians showed that they want to vote but that there is no candidate they want to vote for,’ Ms Kara said. ‘We don’t trust the electoral machinery.’

Three Islamist parties—the Movement of Society for Peace, the Islamic Renaissance Movement and the Movement for National Reform—cited electoral fraud, an allegation they have failed to prove. They boycotted parliament’s inaugural session on May 26th 2012.

Compared with neighbouring countries Tunisia and Morocco, Algeria’s Islamist parties have performed surprisingly poorly in elections. Yet many Algerians counter that their country’s ‘revolution’ took place in the early 1990s, most importantly after the parliament’s lower house adopted a new electoral law that allowed more parties to contest future elections. This resulted in the licensing of over 20 new parties, including the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which won 188 seats in the first round of the 1991 general elections. (This party was poised to win the second round, but the regime cancelled the elections, which triggered Algeria’s civil war and the deaths of more than 150,000.)

The current electoral climate is much more restrictive and the interior ministry still holds an iron grip on the electoral process. Some people argue that the licensing of so many new parties was a government strategy to split the opposition vote and prevent parties from receiving the required 7 percent threshold to win a seat. In 1989, the reforms actually would have led to a real change, as they enabled an opposition party to win the first round.

But now ‘le pouvoir’ is even more controlling. The regime monopolises the media and campaign advertising. Campaign financing is very controversial. ‘Officially, the money comes from declared sources derived from legal state subsidies,’ explained Samir Hchicha, an Algerian activist. ‘But behind the scenes we strongly suspect that various government agencies are the ones providing the funding.’

If Mr Bouteflika were to run a fourth time, even his political opponents admit that he cannot be defeated. The national consultation commission is expected to propose more amendments to the electoral law. They are working without a deadline, however, and their deliberations are behind closed doors. Many expect a constitutional amendment that will establish a new post of vice-president.

With a new vice-president, Mr Bouteflika’s party could remain in power if the ailing president were to die while in office, à la Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.

But for the moment, most political opponents are still focusing on whether or not Mr Bouteflika will run again in 2014. Even if he does not run, any real change is unlikely. ‘Le pouvoir’ may pick a consensus candidate who does not question the state’s power structures. Algeria will face more of the same.

* This article was first published in: Africa in Fact.

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