Algerians have gone to the polls to elect a president, with the elderly and frail incumbent widely expected to win amid uncertainty about how the country’s grave economic problems would be tackled.
Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a veteran of the generation that won independence from France in 1962, is running for a fourth term – reinforcing a dwindling club of Arab presidents-for-life that was shrunk since the uprisings of 2011.
At 77 and in poor health after a stroke, Bouteflika has rarely been seen in public during a tense campaign that is thought unlikely to get the voters out in significant numbers. Abstention rates could be as high as 80% after Islamist and other opposition parties called for a boycott. Early reports suggested a low turnout.
Bouteflika was shown on state TV voting while sitting in a wheelchair at a polling station in the El Biar district of the capital, Algiers. He did not make any statement.
Last weekend he accused his only serious rival, Ali Benflis, a former prime minister, of fomenting violence – a highly sensitive issue in a country still scarred by the bloody insurgency of the mid-1990s. The powerful DRS security service – the most opaque element of an establishment Algerians simply call Le Pouvoir (“the power”) – has been accused of manipulation behind the scenes.
Algeria, with a population of 38 million, largely escaped the turmoil of the Arab spring, which brought regime change to neighbouring Tunisia, Libya and Egypt and triggered constitutional change in Morocco. Sporadic protests rising prices peaked in early 2011. Bouteflika responded by increasing public spending, raising wages and initiating reforms.
But unemployment – the official figure of 9.8% masks a huge grey economy and far higher figures among young people – remains a serious problem. Another is overdependence on the hydrocarbons sector, which generates 90% of state revenues. State subsidies are the highest in the Arab world and unsustainable.
Fifteen years of high oil prices have also fed large-scale corruption, which is said to implicate those close to the president – apparently one of the reasons he is standing for another five-year term.
Benflis is making his second attempt to beat Bouteflika after failing 10 years ago. On Tuesday he said he had an “army” of people in place to monitor the poll. “If the election is rigged, I will not keep quiet,” he said.
Results of the election are due on Friday at the earliest.
( Courtesy The Guardian & Government of Algeria …… Source …… New Africa Business News )