/ 24 February 2009

Algeria’s Bouteflika ‘set for hollow victory’

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is heading for a hollow victory in an election in Algeria in April because he is ill-suited to the task of tackling enormous youth unemployment, a prominent historian said.

Benjamin Stora, one of the world’s leading authorities on the Opec member country and a professor of Maghreb history at Paris IX University, said many Algerians sensed it would take a new generation of leaders to modernise the oil-dependent state and give hope to a population impatient for a better life.

”It could be a Pyrrhic victory without real competition,” Stora said of the 71-year-old’s bid to extend a decade in power with a third five-year term in the April 9 election.

”The widespread suspicion is that the current president wants to be president-for-life,” the Algerian-born French historian of the Maghreb told Reuters.

Bouteflika confirmed last week he would seek re-election yet again, a move made possible after lawmakers changed the Constitution to lift a limit on presidential terms.

But Algerians wanted change, not continuity, Stora said, and his likely victory could be weakened by the fact that the opposition is marginalised and there is no Islamist challenger.

”Bouteflika’s first term was built on the theme of civil peace. But today, 10 years later, what can a third candidacy stand for except to achieve modernisation and generation change?

”Yet Bouteflika is nearly 72. Everyone in Algeria sees that Barack Obama is 47 years old. Yet when you look at Mubarak, Gaddafi, Ben Ali and Bouteflika, even Sarkozy looks young by comparison,” he said, comparing the United States and French presidents to the ageing leaders of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.

Stora is one of the most influential voices in Algerian affairs because his prolific output over many years has wide respect among politicians, teachers, diplomats, investors and fellow experts.

No future, no solution
Bouteflika has promised a national development programme worth $150-billion if re-elected, and allies say the plan should focus on giving young Algerians jobs and a feeling of security.

But social problems remain profound and the government is still struggling to restore hope to a population scarred by a 1990s war in which the army quelled an Islamist insurgency.

Analysts say Bouteflika’s colleagues, most aged over 60, are out of touch with the young, a big failing when official figures show 70% unemployment among adults under 30.

”The first problem is the young. We see it in explosions of violence in soccer stadiums, in urban violence and ‘harragas’, the boat-people trying desperately to reach France,” Stora said.

”These young see no future, no solution. The unemployment level is very high, and enormous among young people,” said Stora.

Weak oil prices had hit the statist economy and the lack of a big private sector meant society was much more vulnerable than in Morocco, he said, referring to Morocco’s mixed economy.

Bureaucratic hurdles and vested interests in an import-dominated economy have stifled local non-energy industries.

A sidelined opposition meant a low turnout was likely, Stora said, referring to the dominance of political life by Bouteflika’s National Liberation Front and a group of loyalist parties. Parties based on overtly religious or ethnic lines are banned.

”He is going to get 90% on a very low turnout. The fact that he is the sole candidate with state support risks weakening and casting doubt on his election.”

On the positive side, Stora said Algeria had rebuilt international support and ”a certain stability” during Bouteflika’s rule, and the head of state had managed to wrest more power from the army, traditionally influential in politics.

”The regime has very strong international support from everyone — Europe, the United States, the Arab world, Russia, China, Iran. Their diplomatic strength is having united all these extremes, from Raoul Castro [of Cuba] to Hu Jintao [of China] to Nicolas Sarkozy [of France],” Stora said.

”There is a certain stability, it’s illusory to think this regime is unstable or weak.” — Reuters