It would not be cynical to conclude that Algeria’s presidential election campaign will not produce new faces untainted by association with traditional power-elites,which are the usual arbiters of power in the country. The emergence of Abdul Aziz Bouteflika, a former foreign minister and presidential hopeful, as the strongest establishment candidate, and the fact that the other prominent candidates are all members of the main political parties, are firm indicators that serious change is not in prospect.
Much is being made in the pro-government media of president Liamine Zeroual’s announcement last January that the army would remain neutral during the election in April. Quite apart from the fact that Zeroual would not normally need to make such an announcement, few Algerians are taken in by the ploy–predictably described in the press as unprecedented–becauses the largest front (FIS) is proscribed and will not contest the poll. Algeria’s free-est election, in January 1991, was cancelled when it became clear that FIS would win it convincingly.
The military have already set the ground-rules for the selection of candidates. They must win 75,000 signatures of support, be aged over 42 and, if old enough, be veterans of the ‘war of independence.’ This clearly ensures that only traditional politicians, either compromised by corruption or happy to take orders from the military, will come through the net–given the fact that the banning of Islamic groups has already excluded ‘zealots’ and ‘extremists’. And the junta’s task has been made even easier this time by divisions in the ranks of political parties, which have caused the emergence of 20 prospective candidates.
The leading establishment candidate, Bouteflika, was not only foreign minister under the old political order, but also the army’s choice for the presidency in 1994, although he was dropped for making conditions, including the right to appoint his own cabinet without reference to the junta. The army then dropped him, appointing Zeroual, a retired general, in his place. The general was returned to power in 1995 elections, which were transparently rigged.
Now that Zeroual has decided to retire two years before the end of his term, the army is once again backing Bouteflika. Bouteflika has presumably learned not to haggle with the junta and is ready to dance to its tune. The fact that he is a pair of safe hands, from the army’s point of view, is demonstrated by the fact that he enjoys the support of both the conservatives in the National Liberation Front (FLN) and the National Rally for Democracy (RND), Zeroual’s party and, by extension, the junta’s too.
Among those FLN leaders opposing Bouteflika is Mahmood Hamrouche, prime minister in 1991, who has emerged as his principal challenger. The difference between the two men--which explains why the army supports the one but not the other--is that Hamrouche, although no Islamic activist, prefers dialogue to the military option in dealing with the FIS. Two other FLN leaders, former foreign minister Talib Ibrahim and former prime minister Belaid Abdul-salam, are also in the race. The RND is, like the FLN, deeply divided. According to press-reports quoting ‘internal sources’, 40 percent of its members back Bouteflika, 20 percent of them Hamrouche, and 40 percent want an RND candidate.
Other candidates include the opposition-leader Hocine Ait Ahmed and Shaikh Mahfoudh Nahnah. Ait Ahmed, a veteran of the war of independence and a strong critic of the army’s scorched-earth policy against FIS, has recently returned from exile to lead his front (FFS), which came second to FIS in 1991. Nahnah, who publicly criticises FIS for taking up arms again the regime, is head of the so-called ‘moderate’ Islamic party, Hamas.
Clearly, the man to watch is Bouteflika, simply because the army and political elite are backing him. Such backing would be a serious liability in a ‘free’ and ‘fair’ poll, but it is a pre-requisite for success in Algeria’s elections, which are heavily rigged, despite Zeroual’s assertion to the contrary. Bouteflika is the most likely to benefit --assuming, of course, that he is not dropped before April, and that Zeroual does not change his mind and decide to complete his term of office after all.
The president has already made known his anger that candidates are conducting themselves as if the issue were already decided. In a furious speech on February 16, Zeroual warned politicians not to take things for granted. Although he named no-one, some commentators read his speech as directed against Bouteflika and his supporters.
But the junta, whose main aim is to destroy the influence of Islam in Algerian public life, is happy with the support and advice of its foreign friends, including the US, Turkey and Israel. Both Israel and the US have expressed support for the way the regime is handling the political and economic affairs of the country, including the management of the election. And the Turkish rulers, the world’s foremost experts in the suppression of political Islam, despatched president Suleiman Demirel to Algiers to advise and express solidarity.
Demirel met Zeroual on January 26, when the two men discussed ways of co-operating to combat terrorism. After the meeting, the Algerian leader said they had agreed to intensify their joint efforts to mobilize the international community against terrorism, and to request certain States to lend a hand in fighting what has become an international ‘phenomenon’.
What is more compromising, and perhaps more significant, is the Israeli media’s support for Bouteflika’s candidacy and the regime’s anti-Islamic stance. The Ha’aretz newspaper, for instance, wrote on February 15 that Bouteflika would win the presidential election and deserved to do so–adding that Algerian leaders and society yearned for co-operation with Israel in all fields. Moreover, Algerians were furious with Hamas chief Sheikh Yassin for his support of ‘terrorism’, and with Yasser Arafat for ignoring Algiers, the paper said.
It is quite a possible that the elections in April will be rigged to produce a result favourable to the ‘normalisation’ of relations with Israel, and to the eventual establishment of a strategic alliance against international terrorism with Turkey, the US and Israel, who are already members of a similar club. This may be another reason for the junta’s extraordinary determination, not only to ban Islamic groups, but also to prevent the emergence of untested candidates. So, expect no surprises.
Muslimedia: March 1-15, 1999