After Algerian landslide, what next?

AP News
Posted: Apr 18, 2014 3:12 PM
After Algerian landslide, what next?

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — Algeria's frail president won a fourth term in a landslide victory, but it only masks a bigger question for this oil-rich North African nation — what now? It's still unclear who will eventually succeed the 77-year-old leader who has been in power since 1999 and deal with an emboldened opposition.

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who had a stroke last year, won a staggering 81 percent of the vote in Thursday's election despite not even appearing in his own campaign.

His main opponent, former Prime Minister Ali Benflis, has responded by crying foul and promising to found a new political party to unite the opposition against a system he describes as rotten and a leader he believes is no longer capable of ruling.

"Algeria will now be run by proxy, a singular situation that puts the security of the country in danger," he told supporters at his campaign headquarters Friday after it was announced he had won just 12 percent of the vote. "Not even Stalin received such scores."

Algeria is a young nation with 80 percent of its 37 million people under the age of 45. There are thousands of small demonstrations every year by people demanding more jobs and housing that the regime has been able to placate for now with generous oil-funded handouts.

But with oil running out, a new system of engaging with the populace needs to be found.

The country's current powerbrokers, including 78-year-old army chief of staff Gaid Salah, and 74-year-old intelligence chief Mohammed Mediene, all belong to an older generation and so far haven't been able to agree on who could succeed Bouteflika.

"It's the end of the old system of governing and the start of a new one," said Amel Boubekeur, an expert on North Africa at the Rabat-based Jacques Berque Center, explaining any new ruler the elites agree on won't have Bouteflika's stature.

Algeria's opposition parties, which were once satisfied with being coopted, came out strongly against the system in the latest campaign, calling for a boycott of the elections on the grounds they wouldn't be fair.

This opposition could come together in the person of Benflis, who by all accounts waged a vigorous election campaign featuring packed rallies in every province of the country.

In an interview with The Associated Press before the election, he described how after his defeat to Bouteflika in 2004, he began touring the country to meet people and build the network that served him so well a decade later.

"People said for 10 years you haven't spoken. I told them I didn't speak with the press, I spoke with the people," he said, calling for a gathering of all likeminded opposition forces including parties, unions and citizen groups to come together in a transition period and write a new constitution based on consensus.

"I can't see Benflis going home after mobilizing so many people," noted Boubekeur.

The key to any future political system will be finding a way to mobilize Algeria's vast young population, which for the most part avoids voting and politics in general, despite being deeply dissatisfied.

Abdelouhab Fersaoui of the activist group Rally for Youth said that this doesn't mean young people aren't active, pointing to the daily demonstrations around the country.

"These demonstrations reject the current situation, whether the unfair distribution of housing, jobs or corruption," he said. "The fact that they are out there shows they are not in despair, they are trying to make themselves heard."

Fersaoui's group seeks to turn this dissatisfaction toward politics and he predicted more protests and greater mobilization after the elections, which like many members of civil society, he had long ago dismissed as a non-event.

"The current regime is fragile," he added. "The fact that it had to impose a president on us in such a condition means it has lost all vision."

Like Benflis, he is also calling for greater cooperation among like-minded elements of society to force change, but dismisses the former prime minister as just another creature of the system.

When Benflis lost in 2004 because of fraud, he did little to challenge the decision and disappeared from view, but if he follows up on his latest vows to take a more confrontational approach, he might overcome people's doubts about him, said Chafiq Mesbah, a former Algerian intelligence officer turned analyst.

"He has ideas that could become the basis of a project," he said. "I think if he is ready to make personal sacrifices, such as going to prison, he could become a rallying point."