Candidates for the upcoming Algerian presidential elections are uniting against President Bouteflika, but it will take the interference of the army to guarantee a free vote, writes Amira Howeidy
Ten candidates for the coming April presidential elections in Algeria have formed a front demanding guarantees of a fair vote. The front seeks to avoid the scenario of the 1999 presidential elections when six candidates pulled out at the 11th hour after accusing the army of supporting Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika, who later won the vote. As the new vote draws near, candidates and political figures are employing a different strategy that they hope will pressure -- if not embarrass -- the president and the army to respond to their demands.
A joint statement issued on Monday by the group of 10 and one non-running politician demanded a full cabinet reshuffle and an independent election- watch committee; the last designed to protect from government intimidation electors who support one of the 10 candidates. Among the statement's signatories are Ahmed Taleb El-Ibrahimi, a former foreign minister and highly respected national figure, former prime ministers Ali Ben Flis, Reda Malek, Ahmed Beb Beitour and Mawloud Hamroush.
"The Algerian nation is facing a dangerous historical stage and the political crisis has escalated," said the statement. It went further by indirectly accusing the president of jeopardising the stability of the Algerian state "through exploiting public institutions", and compromising "the neutrality of military institutions". There has been a growing trend of oppression and exploitation of power, the signatories warned, manifested in violations of the constitution, exploitation of the judicial system, abuse of administrative powers, damaging the multi-party system by attacking politicians and hindering partisan activity, in addition to exploiting audio-visual media.
It is in this environment, said the statement, that the upcoming elections are being prepared; elections "which will be decisive for the future of the country". According to the signatories, "If this vote proceeds in a credible environment, it will place Algeria amid the dynamics of freedom and democracy. But if the current practices continue, it will push the nation to instability and collapse."
Although the statement refrained from any reference to Bouteflika by name, it was clearly written for him and the army. It comes in the aftermath of a noisy showdown between Bouteflika and his supporters and his former prime minister and current chairman of the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN), Ben Flis, who was named as his party's candidate for the April elections. Ironically, it was Ben Flis who lead Bouteflika's 1999 presidential election campaign to victory. It is also due to Ben Flis' efforts that the recently weakened FLN regained its strength once again, sweeping the 2003 legislative elections and winning 203 out of 391 seats in parliament.
The struggle between Bouteflika and Ben Flis turned ugly when a court order froze the activities of the FLN last December. This was followed by clashes between police and 100 MPs and protesters angered by the court decision. The decision, by the administrative chamber of the Algiers Court, was in response to a complaint against Ben Flis lodged by the party's pro-Bouteflika "correctionists". This development, however, came after Bouteflika sacked Ahmed Belil, a prominent judge in the State Council, for refusing to hear complaint by Bouteflika's supporters aimed to freeze activities in the FLN. Belil said the party was not under his jurisdiction.
Naturally, this move triggered a wave of attacks by Bouteflika's critics, and the independent press, who were alarmed by government "infiltration" of the judicial system. The interior minister -- a former intelligence officer -- announced his allegiance to Bouteflika by banning any form of protest to the president, or support for alternative candidates, while permitting the various functions of the FLN's "correctionist" pro-Bouteflika bloc to continue. Bouteflika followed this by a decision to dismiss seven "Ben Flis loyalists" from the government. The FLN retaliated by pulling five of its ministers, prompting Bouteflika to appoint 18 ministers loyal to him. This resulted in the odd situation of a cabinet inclusive of only 27 MPs, transforming it into a pro-Bouteflika government.
Although the president's powers are allowing him to pursue a confrontational strategy, it does not appear to be decisive in the coming elections. The army has remained silent despite the turbulence, prompting some of the candidates for the coming vote to demand more positive involvement from the military.
The army has to be neutral they argue, but it has to maintain a "positive neutrality" that ensures a fair election. Meanwhile, sources close to the military establishment have leaked that Bouteflika is not the most favoured there. Nonetheless, the battle for the Algerian presidency has yet to heat up. Until the true colours of the powerful players are revealed, predictions of the outcome remain mere speculation.