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.
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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.
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).