A country like Algeria, in the throes of a bloody civil war, with its institutions destroyed and its resources plundered, hardly needs a leader effectively appointed - though ostensibly elected - by those responsible for the mess. Abdul Aziz Bouteflika, the sole candidate and ‘victor’ in the April 15 presidential elections, is in no position to challenge the army’s grip on power and bring about the genuine national reconciliation that alone can end Algeria’s mayhem.
Dubbed the establishment candidate by his opponents, and the consensus candidate by his supporters - including government officials and media - Bouteflika did not specifically campaign on a platform of reconciliation, although he occasionally mentioned it. He had at least the opportunity to do so as he, alone among the candidates, received extensive coverage by the state-owned television, a key advantage and a vital privilege in a country where illiteracy runs at about 40 percent.
Like the other six candidates, the new president could not convincingly pose as a reconciliation candidate without advocating the removal of the ban on the largest political group in the country, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), and an end to the role of the military and government militias in security matters. In fact, only one of the candidates, Ahmed Talib al-Ibrahimi, urged the ban on FIS to be ended and the movement to be accepted into the political fold.
The credibility of the poll, and that of Bouteflika, was shattered when all six other candidates withdrew on April 14, only 16 hours before general voting began. They alleged that the special polling taking place in army barracks was being heavily rigged in Bouteflika’s favour, and called their supporters out onto the streets two days later to protest. However, the police were quick to disperse the demonstrators, showing that nothing has really changed as a result of Algeria’s ‘democratic step forward’, as one government newspaper described the poll.
The government predictably claimed a large turnout, announcing that 61 percent of the electorate voted, with 74 percent of them voting for Bouteflika. This reflected the fact that Bouteflika had said that he would only accept the post if he was convincingly elected by a large turn-out. However, the Algerian people are not likely to be taken in by these figures; shortly before the polls closed, turnout was recorded at 36 percent, and seemed unlikely even to reach the 40 percent needed for the vote to be valid. In truth the result makes little difference to ordinary people; they are equally disillusioned with opposition politicians, who are divided as well as corrupt, and who are already toning down their criticism of the new president.
The new president and his army supporters may have got away with their electoral fraud and may not face widespread unrest because of it, at least for the time being. And although both France and the US criticised the management of the poll, the new president is certain to enjoy the support of western countries. After all, his candidacy was strongly backed by Israel when he first announced it. The Ha’aretz newspaper, for example, wrote on February 15 that he would win the elections and deserved to do so, adding that Algerian leaders and society were eager for co-operation with Israel in all fields.
Boosting external backing for the regime is one of the main reasons why the junta invested in Bouteflika in the first place. They recall that in the 1960s and 70s, when he a loyal supporter of the then president Houari Boumedien, he was active and popular in African and non-aligned circles. But as some critics have pointed out, Algerians’ chief preoccupation today is how to end the civil war and find jobs - given that 70 percent of them, being under 30, do not remember Bouteflika’s last triumphs and that unemployment stands at 30 percent.
Moreover, the president’s credentials were acquired while the basis for the economic mismanagement and corruption that have dissipated the country’s oil and gas resources were being laid down under cover of one-party rule. So he is hardly the man to usher in a new dawn of economic efficiency and sound public morality, generating jobs and protecting national resources. But even if he were the ‘right man’, the pouvoir - the generals and public officials that control power in the country - would not allow him a free hand, as they are the principal beneficiaries of the institutionalised mismanagement and malpractice. The French and Americans, whose main interest is to plunder more of the country’s natural resources, would also threaten to withhold their backing, which he needs to justify the junta’s confidence in him.
When in 1992 the FIS looked poised to secure sweeping victory in the country’s first multi-party elections, the army swiftly intervened, beginning the continuing seven-year bloodbath. Having learnt not to risk another free poll, the junta duly rigged the 1997 parliamentary elections, which FIS could not contest anyway because of the legal ban. Commentators are now advising Bouteflika to dissolve the parliament returned in the 1997 poll, reconcile with the former candidates opposing him before his election as president, and open a dialogue with FIS. These are all harmless steps, which even the junta might urge on him to improve his credibility. After all, the present parliamentarians are the henchmen of the outgoing president, and it is reasonable that Bouteflika should have his own men. And outgoing president Zeroual was known to have gone through the motion of holding talks with FIS leaders, only to accuse them of intransigence afterwards.
But the serious steps that might ultimately lead to a political settlement and an end to the civil war will not be forthcoming. One such gesture would be an immediate lifting of the ban on FIS, the release of all political detainees, and the disbandment of the government militias that are responsible for a good deal of Algeria’s troubles.
As this could be interpreted as a victory for the Algerian Islamic movement and an acceptance of a role for Islam in the country’s affairs, the local power elite and its Arab and foreign allies are bound to resist such moves. Turkey, Egypt and Libya, which openly boast of having defeated their Islamic movements on the ground, are certain to raise strong objections and to offer their expertise such, as it is.
Bouteflika clearly has little room for manoeuvre; indeed, he may even have been trapped by the military junta. But no-one need shed tears for his predicament. He is certainly not complaining - at least audibly.
Muslimedia: May 1-15, 1999