Algeria’s heirless president

Algeria’s heirless president

By Elias Temlali ,, 4 March 2008

Algerians pride themselves on being the only Arab nation in which the president has never ruled for too long. Since independence from France in 1962, all heads of state have either died, resigned, been deposed, or killed.

Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 71, the current president of the country who came to power in 1999 and was re-elected in 2004, however, appears to be holding firm.

But, unlike many of his contemporaries – such as Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, and Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader – Bouteflika has no heir he can groom to succeed him.

With no offspring, Bouteflika may be planning to keep himself in power by amending article 74 of the 1996 Algerian constitution, and lifting the restriction which limits the president to only two terms.

The president has not said whether he will run for a third term, but support for his candidacy is increasing.

The government says it has received millions of endorsements for extending Bouteflika’s term. But opposition figures say these have come by way of campaigns launched by parties and associations closely linked to the president’s supporters and which are freely granted space and time in local media.

According to Abu Jara Sultani, the leader of the Movement of Society for Peace, one of three parties making up what is known as the presidential alliance, there is a need to extend the tenure of the current presidency.

« We need to amend the constitution to accommodate it to the deep political and economic changes the country has undergone, » he told Al Jazeera.

Seeking third term

Bouteflika has argued that new social and political realities, particularly in the wake of a civil conflict which claimed 200,000 lives, demand fundamental changes to the constitution.

Shortly after his 2004 re-election, Bouteflika moved the country towards a referendum which he hoped would bring an end to the 13-year civil war and encourage national cohesion.

More than 97 per cent voted ‘yes’ to the question « Do you agree with the Draft Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation, which is proposed to you? »

Supporters of a third term credit Bouteflika with launching the national reconciliation process and spurring economic growth.

One of those supporters, Abdul Aziz Belkhadem, Algeria’s prime minister, has also called on parliament to extend presidential terms from five to seven years.

Disputable record?

But Bouteflika’s record of achievement is disputable.

When he came to power, he endorsed a negotiation process already under way between the army and the rebels.

The security situation has since improved, but terrorism, this time under a global jihadist umbrella, has made a comeback.

State revenues have reached unprecedented levels (about $100bn) to the point that newspapers mock the government because it does not know what to do with the money.

This, however, has not sufficiently impacted the daily life of citizens. Raises in salaries have been dented by inflation and skyrocketing prices.

Titanic projects, including a 1,200km-east-west highway and a million-unit housing project contrast sharply with poverty in the streets of Algiers, the capital.

Petitioning opposition

Opposition figures and prominent intellectuals also believe an amendment lifting the limit on presidential terms endangers what is left of a semblance of democracy in their country and say the constitution needs to be implemented, not amended.

Hoping to galvanise public opposition to the proposed constitutional amendment, they have started a petition in the Arabic weekly Elkhabar-hebdo and the French-speaking daily El-watan.

But they nurture no illusions. The petition is more of a symbol; changing the course of events is too ambitious an objective.

The petition calls for prioritising problem areas such as unemployment, the high cost of living, terrorism, and the growing spectre of hundreds risking their lives trying to reach the Mediterranean’s northern shores.

Empower democracy

Abed Charef, a leading chronicler and a signatory to the petition, says an amended constitution will lead to dictatorship and urged democratic rights be empowered.

He said: « If the distribution of power in the constitution is blurry, let us start by implementing the clear things – freedom of expression, assembly and voting. Bouteflika may then vie for 10 terms if he wishes. »

« People such as Sultani talk as if they have never been part of this parliament and government, » Charef added.

Charef and other opposition figures are also questioning why no amendments have been proposed to empower parliament, which they say has been stripped of most of its prerogatives, including that of evaluating the performance of the government.

« It is parliament’s problem, not the president’s, » Sultani said.

« You should, of course, expect the president to be happy with a parliament which has handed him over the reins. In 10 years, it has come up with only one law. »