By Op-Ed Contributor | Apr 10 2014Abdelaziz Bouteflika
By Alexis Artaud de La Ferrière
Tunisia’s relationship with Algeria is vitally important. Tunis was the seat of the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic between 1960 and 1962. After winning its independence from France, Algeria soon became the force in North Africa, exerting considerable influence on its eastern neighbor.
Most recently, the preferential trade agreement that went into effect on March 1 and talk of joint security operations along the shared border highlight the importance of ties between Tunis and North Africa’s second-largest economic and military force (after Egypt).
With Algeria’s elections taking place next week, now is a time for Tunisians to analyze the complex political developments taking place in Algiers.
The stakes are high in the Algerian presidential elections, which will take place on April 17. High enough to elicit the personal attention of the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, who both paid a visit to Algiers last week.
Certain media sources have interpreted these visits as a sign of foreign interference. Both Qatar and the United States have sought to increase their influence in North Africa in recent years. Also, both delegations were received by current President Abdelaziz Bouteflika last Thursday. [display_posts type="related" limit="3" position="right"]
While the perception of foreign meddling has raised some eyebrows, those concerned about electoral interference mostly look within Algeria itself. The bulk of articles and discussions on the upcoming elections do not focus on voters’ intentions, but on which candidate is most likely to be favored by the Algerian political system.
One large question is the meaning of “political system” in Algeria. There are those who attribute power to the overlapping interests of the deep state, the military high command, the secret services (DRS), and private economic interests. Indeed, since the founding of the Republic in 1962, the President has always been pre-selected prior to the popular ballot.
Bouteflika, the incumbent, is one of six candidates in the running. A veteran of the independence movement against France, he was first elected president in 1999 and is largely credited with steering the country out of its decade of violence. If re-elected this will be his fourth term.
On the surface, it appears that Bouteflika is strongly favored to win a fourth term. He not only benefits from the backing of his party, the National Liberation Front (FLN), the Army, and the UGTA labor union, but also has the ability to mobilize the massive resources of the state to aid his campaign.
Moreover, it is likely that Bouteflika can count on the support of the voting population from the interior regions by riding referring back to his own success as a revolutionary figure and as a bulwark of 15 years of peace. There is also an absence of a strong opposition.
However, Bouteflika has serious weaknesses. The 77-year-old President has been absent from the campaign trail and virtually unseen on the public stage since suffering a stroke in April 2013. Earlier this month, Minister of Industrial Development Amara Benyounès announced that Bouteflika would soon address the people, an event that has yet to occur.
After 15years in power, his grave debilitation and lack of public engagement have made him seem incapable of fulfilling the functions of an authoritarian strongman, let alone a democratic executive.
There has been no shortage of speculation regarding what might be happening behind the scenes of the election. Two scenarios bear consideration:
One is that Bouteflika is being used to place another person in the presidential palace through the back door. In fact, Bouteflika himself already set out the stage for this scenario. In proposals for constitutional reforms to be introduced after his re-election, he has suggested creating the position of vice president after the American model.
As in the American model, the vice president would accede to the presidency in the event of the death or serious incapacity of the elected president, and remain in office until the completion of the latter’s term. If Bouteflika were elected, it is likely that either the current Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal or the former PM Ahmed Ouyahia would become vice president. In the absence of Bouteflika himself, both men are commanding presences on the campaign trail.
Another widely-discussed possibility is that the current regime is not engineering Bouteflika’s victory, but that of another. Even though he appears to be the establishment candidate, the designated successor is in fact the opposition candidate, Ali Benflis.
Formerly head of the FLN, Benflis was Bouteflika’s campaign manager in 1999 and later Prime Minister, before being sidelined in 2003. In the 2004 elections, Benflis challenged Bouteflika, but only garnered 6.4 percent of a vote that was widely reported to be rigged. For the last ten years, he has stayed out of the political sphere, but has now returned from obscurity to run as an alternative to the current political system.
Some critics accuse Benflis of acting as a decoy to draw the attacks of the genuine opposition away from Bouteflika. According to the proponent’s of this theory, however, it is the other way around. Bouteflika is in fact the decoy, so that Benflis can be elected as an ostensibly independent candidate.
If Benflis won, there would be a superficial break from the continuation of business as usual. However, his close connections to the FLN in conjunction with his previous appointments suggest that this break would be, at best, tenuous and, at worst, an attempt to perpetuate current policy via a shadow candidate.
Whoever wins these elections, the next president will be an important figure beyond Algeria’s own borders.
Tensions in the Crimea suggest that Europe will depend more heavily on Algerian hydrocarbon reserves in order to offset Russian supplies of natural gas. In North Africa, Algeria’s strong military means that it will continue to play a stronger role in the security affairs of its restive neighbors, including Tunisia.
Significantly, there is no discernible difference (or even debate) amongst the candidates regarding foreign policy. The security-oriented consensus will likely persist. What will matter most for actors invested in the region is establishing working relationships with individuals within the next government.
Thus, given the current state of uncertainty on both sides of the Mediterranean and Algeria’s pivotal role in the region, it is not surprising that Washington and Doha have taken a keen interest in the outcome of these elections.
Alexis Artaud de La Ferrière lives in Tunis and is a research associate at the University of Cambridge Centre for International Relations in the Middle East and North Africa. The opinions expressed by the author do not reflect those of Tunisia Live as a publication.