Despite fraud claims, Algeria's leader likely to be reelected today

President Bouteflika's quest for a third term is prompting concerns that he is poised to become North Africa's newest strongman.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika (r.) casts his vote as a nephew looks on, in the El Biar district of Algiers on Thursday.
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    President Bouteflika's campaign posters blanket the city of Algiers. Mr. Bouteflika has run Algeria for 10 years and is likely to be re-elected Thursday.
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Algerians go to the polls Thursday to cast their votes in an election whose winner almost anyone on the street can predict: sitting president Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

He has run the country for the past 10 years, governing with the support of the National Liberation Front (known by the French acronym FLN), which led the 1954-62 independence fight against French imperialism. In November, Mr. Bouteflika's allies in parliament overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment to do away with term limits, and allow him a third term, as part of a package that also gave them a 300 percent raise, says Jacob Mundy, an analyst with the Middle East Research and Information Project.

Despite the five other candidates on the ticket, few expect the president to lose at what appears to be his own game.

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Bouteflika's supporters say the country needs him as it pursues economic development, and argue that he is so popular – in 2004, he won 85 percent of the vote – it would be wrong to deny Algerians the right to reelect him.

But most observers doubt that the push for a third term is about developing the country in the aftermath of its 1990s civil war, in which it is estimated that between 100,000 and 200,000 people died in fighting between the state and armed Islamic opposition. Instead, many worry the vote is the last step in the coronation of North Africa's latest president-for-life.

"Bouteflika is similar to all other Arab leaders that want to stay in power forever," says Kamal Zait, managing editor of the weekly Al Khabar newspaper, an independent Arabic daily. "He resembles them all."

Bouteflika and 'big tent' politics

But for Bouteflika campaign volunteer Tafer Sonia, the president's firm grip on power lends stability to the country. In the capital's upscale Hedra neighborhood, where she works alongside stores offering European brands and cafés selling expensive coffee, she says that Algeria has been much safer under Bouteflika's watch than during the decade of civil war that preceded it.

"People trust him because of what we have seen on the ground," says Ms. Sonia, a stylishly dressed, unveiled woman with short hair that's been dyed blond. "Without Bouteflika all of the advances we have made would be threatened."

But those advances have not touched all Algerians equally – some of whom are more interested in just getting by than in picking a new president.

For three weeks, Kamal Ouzibar and two friends have slept on the sidewalk across the street from Sonia's office in a big tent adorned with the president's portrait.

They traveled here from the countryside to rent the tent to the FLN, the party that backs the president, which wanted to use it as a local gathering spot for his supporters.

Mr. Ouzibar says few people have spent much time there, but he is grateful for the work. The three men will vote for Bouteflika, says Ouzibar, because, "You can't rent out the tent to him and then not vote for him."

Ouzibar adds, "But if any other candidate called us and wanted to rent the tent, we'd rent it out to them too. I don't care about politics, I'm just following money."

Time to start from scratch?

Two left-wing parties based in the Berber-speaking Kabylia region have called for a boycott of the election: the Socialist Forces Front (FFS) and the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD).

"This is not a real election; the real election was in November when parliament amended the Constitution to allow Bouteflika a third term," says Moncef Bellabas, spokesman for the RCD. "This is an [excuse] for the state to take more power and more control of people."

First Secretary Karim Tabou, of the FFS, says the country has been overrun with corruption during Bouteflika's tenure, and that it should alarm people that "so many people want to move abroad to look for work."

Algeria's estimated unemployment rate was higher than 12 percent last year according to official figures, although independent estimates put the rate closer to 20 percent, says Salah Mouhoubi, an economist at the University of Paris. While artificially low, Algeria's official figure is still six times higher than neighboring Morocco, although only half that of Libya's.

"The same script has been repeating itself ever since Bouteflika came to power, and the same failures have been repeated again and again," says Mr. Tabou.

In Tabou's view, the only way for the country to move forward is to start over. The FFS has called for a special assembly to write a new constitution and prepare for a do-over of Thursday's election, which they think will ultimately prove to be illegitimate. So far, the idea that has gained little traction.

'Power at any price'

Bouteflika has been active in Algerian politics since the country's independence from France in 1962, serving as foreign minister at the age of 25. This tenure gives him an influence that extends beyond his allies.

"When you talk about who the other political forces in Algeria are, none of them are really independent of Bouteflika," says Mr. Mundy, the analyst with the Middle East Research and Information Project.

Take Moussa Touati, for example. The leader of the conservative Algerian National Front, he supported amending the Constitution to allow the president a third term. But now he is running against Bouteflika because he decided that a third term "would only make the problems in this country worse."

Mr. Touati describes the election as "a fight between the people who have abused their power and want to keep their privileges, and the rest of the country." He admits that it's a fight he has little chance of winning.

"Bouteflika wants to stay in power at any price," he says. "If he wins on Thursday, it means there has been a massive fraud."

A stacked deck

Many ordinary Algerians say the deck is stacked in one man's favor.

Rabeh, who like many people here asked to be identified by only his first name, runs an auto mechanic shop in the working-class neighborhood of Douera. Touati's walled compound sits nearby.

He dropped out of school at age 15 to work, and dreams of moving to Europe. He doesn't like politics; every time he has gone to vote he says he has drawn cartoons on his ballot instead.

"We have peace here now, but apart from that politics has never done anything for me," he says. "The price of potatoes has gone up to $1.60, so for working people now a potato is a luxury."

Sitting inside his garage is a campaign van for the Algerian National Front, with Touati's face painted across the back.

"I'm taking my time with this one," he says, patting its side. "Bouteflika is still going to be president after Thursday, so Touati won't be needing it anyway."

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