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A president for life?

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In spite of failing health, 81-year-old President Bouteflika is running for a fifth term. If his country doesn’t first blow up, it will surely grind to a halt.

On the edges of the Arab Spring and away from the reflectors of the international spotlight, Algeria is edging its way towardspresidential elections. What does the future hold for the country that has been led by an 81 year-old confined to a wheelchair since a stroke in 2013? With more than half of the population under the age of 30, the president appears to have been leader of thePeople’s Democratic Republic since time immemorial. In fact, he has been in situ since 1999 and it would appear that the only thing capable of ending the rule of Abdelaziz Bouteflikais his death.

The future of the countryis set to be decided by the establishedpowers, concealed behind a mendacious smokescreen of liberalisation and pluralism. At the top of the pyramid is the People’s National Army (ANP), which enjoys widespread popular support, partly thanks toits role in the fight for liberation from the French colonisers in the bloody civil war of the nineties and, more recently, its containment of the jihadist threat from Tunisia, Libya, Mali and the Sahel. For the ANP, the presence of a head of state whose decision-making faculties have been compromised is undoubtedly a plus.

In spite of the nod to a multiparty system introduced in 1995, no real changes have been effected. The electoral arena sees the National Liberation Front(FLN) as the majority group followed by National Rally for Democracy (RND). The latter, however, is a “placeboparty” created by the regime itself in order to giver the illusion of an alternative at the ballot box but entirely faithful to the directives dictated from above. Completing the list of Algerian decision makers is the elite that has been conceived through selective privatisations. The sectors driving the economy, above all defence and hydrocarbons, have been subject to bespoke liberalizations made to measure in order to favour the regime’s backers. Public monopolies with a tinge of socialism have thus been transformed into oligopoliesbenefitting the army and the state bureaucracy.

Those who do not belong to the high echelons mentioned above, i.e. the overwhelming majority of Algerians, make do with the distribution of petrol dollars under the form of publicconstruction projects, income support and salary increases in the public sector (the State is the country’s main employer). Nevertheless, protests are frequent in Algeria. They are motivated not by a desire for change at the nation’s tiller rather by demandsrelating to employment and taxes. This non-subversive character was also a distinguishing feature of the demonstrations in the country between 2010 and 2011 while elsewhere the so-called Arab Spring was taking root. At that time the regime was quick to respondby announcing constitutional reforms (which saw the light only in 2016) and by lifting the state of emergency that had lasted for 19 years, in addition to granting generous subsidies to numerous segments of the population, in particular, young people.

After the oil price shock in 2014, however, the distribution of baksheesh (a term used in the Middle East to refer to charitable giving, tipping or the issuing of small bribes) through the welfare state became increasingly unsustainable. With 95% of exportearnings derived from crude and the competition from gas in the Eastern Mediterranean (projects to exploit shale gas in the south of Algeria will have to deal with the huge quantities of water required as well as the protests of the local population), oil revenues dropped from 112 billionin 2014 to 49 billion last year. No time was wasted in implementing remedial action in the form of tax reform and cuts to public expenditure. There were increases of 2% to VAT, which rose to 9% and 19% depending on the goods in question, while import volumes were slashed to 45 billion dollarsin 2017, this year the government’s target figure is below 30 billion. What brought Algerians out onto the streets to protest, however, was pension reform.Pensionable agewas increased to seventy years compared with theprevious rule of 25 years service in the public sector and 30 in the private sector.

Less forthcoming were structural manoeuvres to free up the Algerian economy from its dependence on hydrocarbons and to open it up to foreign investment. What is referred to as the 51/49 question, a law that prohibits more than 49% of a company belonging to foreign investors, remains unresolved. This represents not only a significant handicap for the country’s potential to attract international investors, but it is also guarantees the survival of the local oligarchies that control strategic companies such as the oil colossus Sonatrach. Attempts to privatise public companies have also been in vain; Bouteflika intervened rapidly to veto a recent denationalization project promoted by Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia.

Given theextremely tense socioeconomic situation, one might assume that the regime’s hold on power is in danger. What is lacking, however, is a credible alternative. The opposition appears fragmented and without a unifying charismatic figure;even the main Islamist parties are in collusion with the regime. Last year both the legislative elections in May and the local elections inNovember saw narrow victories for FLN and RND. Even more significant,however, was the voter turnout:a mere 35% of those entitled to vote chose todo so at the legislative elections. While a high level of abstention indicatesa lack of faith in the institutions in power, ithas only served toconsolidate the status quo.

In all probability elections in 2019 will represent not so much a decision-making process but a ratification of what already exists. While yet to be confirmed, the candidacy of Bouteflika for a fifth mandate would reiterate the regime’s obstinate resilience. And were the president not to take part, the passage of the sceptre of power is likely to take place within the inner circle of trusted lieutenants. Among the most probable successors are Ahmed Ouyahia (current premier and long term leader of the RND), Ahmed Gaid Salah (Head of the army and a Bouteflika ally, but now aged 76)and Said Bouteflika, the sixty-year-old brother of the current head of state. The latter is a specialadviser to his brother Abdelaziz and already plays a key role in the decisions that emanate from the presidential residence in Zeralda. Said is believed to have been behindmoves to make the army more loyal to the presidency by preservingmilitary spending in spite of the lean economic times and, more importantly, bydissolving theDepartment of Intelligence and Security(DRS)controlled by the Ministry of Defence and replacing it with the Department of Surveillance and Security (DSS)that will report directly to the presidency.

Another unavoidable actor is the omnipresent army, a mainstay of the Algerian system in spite of the reformsenacted by Bouteflika in 2014 following his election for a fourth mandate. The ANP still offers a guarantee of stability in a country that, given the failure of the Arab Spring in the surrounding countries and the open wound of the civil war – at least amongthose old enough to remember it – can save the country from the abyss of revolution. The widespread social protests, to which can be added the renewed inflammation of the question of the Kabylia Berbers, are likely to find their antidote only in economic recovery and a policy of redistribution. For the Bouteflika clan there is little else to do but proceed with a restructuring of the system,partiallyscaling back the prevailing oligopolies: either that or hope for an increase in oil prices, the panacea of country that nowadays seems to have oil as its only handhold.

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