Algerian party leaders suggest Bouteflika will not seek re-election
Party leaders campaigning for local elections in Algeria have indicated that ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika will not seek another term in office in 2019. The revelation is likely to transform a usually tepid presidential election cycle into a fierce battle for the country’s top position.
Local elections, scheduled for November 23, are being seen as the first stage in a process that pits the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) party against Algerian Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia’s camp.
“To win the presidential elections in 2019 we have to get an overwhelming majority in the local elections,” FLN Secretary-General Djamel Ould Abbes said at a party rally in Algiers October 26.
Ould Abbes has repeated for months that “Bouteflika is the party’s only candidate” but he said on October 26 that he did not know whom the FLN would nominate.
Analysts said local election campaigns had become de facto “presidential primaries.”
“The FLN’s secretary-general missed no occasion these last days to assert that its party already had its candidate for the presidency in 2019,” said political analyst Salim Mesbah. “Ould Abbes wants to hammer home the message that his enemy brother (the National Rally for Democracy party) has no chance of being supported by the FLN to be the next president.”
One likely contender for the presidency is Ouyahia, a veteran diplomat and four-time prime minister who has managed difficult crises over the years. In the 1990s he brokered a peace treaty with jihadists, before successfully overseeing the economy’s transition to a liberal, free-market system.
He has been a firm supporter of Bouteflika and served as his chief of staff before being appointed prime minister — for the fourth time — in August. Recently, however, Ouyahia has told supporters at campaign rallies that he “agrees with 70-80%” of the president’s positions. This is a far cry from his one-time assertion that “the president is the saviour of Algeria.”
Analysts said the change indicated that Ouyahia, who heads the National Rally for Democracy (RND) party, is looking towards the presidency. To get there, however, he must navigate various political and business factions vying for power, including the Bouteflika family, which opposes his political ambitions behind the scenes.
The influential El Watan daily quoted a former minister “privy to Ouyahia’s strategy” as saying that beyond the local polls of November 23, the game is over for the presidential elections in 2019. Ouyahia’s decision to lead RND campaign rallies is not a coincidence.
Ouyahia’s emergence on the national scene allows him to “take advantage of the campaign at a time when his position gives him an edge over other aspirants for the presidency,” the former minister continued. “It is a trump card for him and he is playing it to the extreme limits.”
“Despite the fragile economic and social situation, Ouyahia can manage to stay on top until 2019 if the inflation does not soar and the prices of oil rise steadily to reach $70 a barrel next year and the following,” the ex-minister was quoted as saying.
“That will allow Ouyahia to claim he succeeded in managing the crisis and appear in the eyes of the population as the experienced and steady hand who is the natural choice to be the next president.”
Ouyahia’s campaign rhetoric seems to support the notion that he is eyeing a run. “I’m from a working-class neighbourhood in Algiers,” he declared during a recent speech. “I’m a son of those people and I feel their pains and share their hopes.”
Ould Abbes, who is also looking to run for the presidency, said his party has “historic legitimacy” as champions of the country’s struggle for independence.
“I say and I repeat it that the FLN is the party that had the historic legitimacy and this legitimacy is here and alive. The FLN is the founder of the state and we are always here,” Ould Abbes said at a recent rally.
Many observers, including members of government, said the military was the only institution capable of deciding the next president.
On October 25, former minister Abdelmajid Menasra said: “If Bouteflika does not seek a new mandate… the army will pick his replacement. This is the truth and the party is here to play as a political cover for the military.”
“No sane person can believe what Ould Abbes said,” said Saad Okba, a commentator for Algeria’s main Arabic-language el Khabar daily. “People with sound judgment could reason that the FLN can name the president who is commander-in-chief without the army’s accord. The aspirant for the presidency is keen in getting the endorsement of the army and he does not care about what the Algerian people want.”
Talk of replacing Bouteflika, who is 80 years old and has suffered two strokes since February 2013, gained traction as his medical condition deteriorated. The president’s close friends and allies have publicly demanded to see him to ensure that high-level decisions and announcements are indeed being made by him in recent months.
Opposition groups called for the president to be removed from office in August, arguing that a clique within the ruling circle was making decisions for him. Some opponents urged the military to force him out of office.
When asked October 31 about the prospect of Bouteflika’s candidacy, Ould Abbes replied that “only God would know for sure.”
“What I know is that President Bouteflika is able to end his mandate with ease. Those who are talking about snap presidential vote are dreaming. The sickness is decided by God,” he said.
Lamine Ghanmi is a veteran Reuters journalist. He has covered North Africa for decades and is based in Tunis.