On April 17th presidential elections are scheduled in Algeria. The current president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has been in power for the last fifteen years, will run again. His candidature has caused a lot of resistance by opponents, which have staged several protests. Next to the current president, eleven candidates have registered for the elections. The Constitutional Council have examined all applications and approved those of six candidates. Despite this number, changes that Bouteflika will win again are huge.
Protests do not occur often in Algeria. In the 1990s the country faced a civil war with Islamist fighters, which caused more than 200.000 lives. Because of this conflict, many citizens are wary of any political instability.
After the candidature of Bouteflika was announced, protests have started. The opposition claim that the elections will have a foregone conclusion. Next to this, Bouteflika has health problems and suffered from a stroke last year. This makes people question his capacity. Also, if he is re-elected but too sick to rule, who will govern Algeria?
A lot of the protests against Bouteflika’s candidature come from the Barakat movement, which means ‘that’s enough’. This small group of protesters, including journalists, also protest online. Security forces have tried to block access to their website three times. Despite the fact that Barakat is a small movement, local analysts are describing it as an important development. Rachid Tlemcani, a political analyst at University of Algiers, sees the movement as an alternative to the classic political parties that have failed. Next to this, it makes people think of the youth behind the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt. Algeria itself was barely affected by the pro-democracy wave in these countries in 2011.
Bouteflika announced his candidacy personally on television, which was the first time he spoke in public since he returned from a hospital treatment in Paris last July. According to the Prime Minister, Bouteflika is “in possession of all his mental and intellectual faculties,” despite the fact he has not completely recovered physically. Next to his announcement Bouteflika called for voters to turn out in large numbers and said they should choose the person they believe is most suitable to lead the country to the next stage. The opposition, including the new Barakat movement, called for exactly the contrary: boycott the elections.
Not every protest was against Bouteflika’s candidature. A group of 3000 people gathered in the capital for “a national meeting to sensitise young people to voting.”
Next to the attempts to block the Barakat website, an Algerian cartoonist faced prosecution due to an unpublished drawing which made fun of Bouteflika’s decision to seek re-election. In the end he was acquitted and escaped the 18-month prison sentence and a 30.000 dirham (280 euro) fine which was demanded. According to Freedom House, an US NGO that monitors press freedom, this is not unusual; censorship in the country is namely widespread.
According to Human Rights Watch, Algerian authorities are trying to prevent the current demonstrations by arresting protesters and using more police officers. Security personnel have already used force three times against the protesters this month. On March 14th France, urged the government to respect the right to peaceful demonstrations and free expression after the police stopped some marches.
The presidential elections will be monitored by different groups. Which is important because a former Prime Minister, Ali Benflis, who is seen as Bouteflika’s main challenger, warned against fraud.
The Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra announced that international organizations and experts are to send observers to monitor the election. The Arab League will send 110 observers, the African Union 200. The European Union, United Nations and Organization of Islamic Cooperation will be represented as well.
New path for Algeria
According to opposition leaders Bouteflika should make room for a new generation who want to reform a country they say has been run behind-the-scenes since independence by a clique of aging National Liberal Front party elites and army generals who will back Bouteflika again during the upcoming election. It will be hard to change the political system because opposition parties remain weak in Algeria. To create a better position protests are not the only option, former Prime Minister Mouloud Hamrouche, argued, who is in favour of : “a peaceful change of the regime.”
By Laura Ritter
Sources: Alarabiya I, Aljazeera I, Reuters, Aljazeera II, BBC, Alarabiya II, Alarabiya III, Human Rights Watch, Alarabiya IV, Alarabiya V