As presidential elections on April 17 draw nearer, Algerians are both protesting and joking about three-term President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s decision to run for an unprecedented fourth term despite serious health problems. As the campaign kicked off, Ali Dilem, a popular caricaturist for the Liberté daily newspaper, summed up this dual attitude in Algeria: A youth holds up a sign with the popular Arab Spring slogan “dégage” (get out), to which Bouteflika, sitting calmly on a throne, responds, “I mustn’t move . . . Doctor’s orders.”
And budge he likely will not. Even though his re-election is essentially a fait accompli—and he does enjoy a fair bit of popular support—many Algerians have been taking to the streets in a rare series of public demonstrations calling for a boycott of the April 17 poll so long as the once-charismatic 77-year-old stroke patient remains a candidate. Voters speaking to France’s Le Monde newspaper who do not support the president called these elections a “joke” and described Algeria’s political life as “tragicomic." But, while many are understandably unhappy with Bouteflika and his repeated amendments to the constitution to allow him first a third, and now a fourth, term in office, it is unclear who could give him a real run for his money during this campaign.
The president’s main challenger, Ali Benflis, was his campaign manager during his first presidential run in 1999, and has also served as prime minister under Bouteflika and has been a leader of the ruling party. Now an independent candidate, Benflis has promised to tackle corruption and to hold a Tunisia-style national dialogue on the constitution.
Algeria renounced its one-party system in 1989, and in recent years President Bouteflika has approved the establishment of dozens of new political parties, mostly as a response to rising pressure for reform. But there is still a lot of work to be done when it comes to the creation of a more participatory political system.
With corruption rampant among politicians of all stripes, tales of caution emerging from some Arab Spring nations, and Algeria’s own struggles with economic decline and extremism in the south, many Algerians could very easily side with “the devil they know” over the risks of change and the unknown. (Though, humorously, there are also jokes that the ailing president should have body doubles, à la Saddam Hussein of Iraq, to take his place at public appearances—so they may not know who they’re getting, after all.)
Algerians are clearly fed up with this stalemate, but save entering the precarious and likely dangerous realm of an Arab Spring-style revolution, playing the waiting game may be the best of the bad choices available until Bouteflika leaves office. The choice in these elections, then, is between the spectacle of familiarity and the specter of the unknown. In the mean time, Algerians of all political leanings should continue to work to build a vibrant and diverse political scene.