The announcement by Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal on February 22 that Algeria's president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, intends to stand for a fourth term in the upcoming presidential elections is a blow to those hoping the polls might offer an opportunity for change.
The president decided to run in "response to the encouragement of citizens from all over the country", said Sellal at a ceremony commemorating the opening of an African green energy conference.
But the president's ill health undermines what little will remained in Algeria to engage in the election process. Such was the doubt over whether the president would run that the announcement came just two months before the scheduled April 17 elections, and with just days remaining before the deadline for candidates to register. The fact that the announcement was made by the prime minister, and not the president himself, does nothing to allay concerns that the president is not fit to govern.
Bouteflika, who will celebrate his 77th birthday on March 2, has been president since 1999, but in recent years his health has deteriorated significantly. He spent time in a Paris hospital in late 2005, undergoing an operation for what official statements said was a stomach ulcer. According to leaked US diplomatic cables dating from 2011, though, the president was believed to have been suffering from cancer.
The president has failed to recover his full health in the following years. He spent two months in the same Paris hospital last summer following a minor stroke, and there were concerns at the time that he would not be able to resume his duties as president.
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No public speeches
Upon his return to Algiers, the president made sweeping changes to his cabinet and reformed the state security service in moves that were interpreted as an effort to show that he still wielded real authority in the government. But Bouteflika has not made any public speeches since he returned home from the hospital, and aside from receiving foreign dignitaries and chairing two cabinet meetings, he has carried out few presidential duties.
On Monday, Bouteflika made a statement on the necessity of further developing the country's oil and gas reserves, but it was read in his name by the counsellor to the presidency, Mohamed Ali Boughazi.
In a broadcast of a meeting between the president and French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault in December, an Algerian TV station repeatedly replayed the same hand movement by the president from multiple angles in an effort to demonstrate the robustness of his health.
"It is insulting to the intelligence of the Algerian people," said Kamal Benkoussa, who has spent the past few weeks gathering signatures to stand as an independent candidate in the elections. "He doesn't speak, and according to people close to him he's only conscious for about an hour each day. Everyone knows he is too ill to travel."
The president's capacity to campaign in the upcoming polls will be severely limited. "In 2009, he went to all the regional capitals," said Kal Ben Khaled, an expert in North African politics and author of the blog The Moor Next Door. "He did what you'd expect from a leader. He can't do that now. He'll have to send a surrogate, but it's quite difficult to make promises remotely."
The military's favourite choice
For the regime, though, Bouteflika is the least bad candidate. During the president's absence in Paris last year, there were moves by the military establishment to line up an alternative to Bouteflika, but since his return the political and military elites have proved unable to agree on a consensus candidate to stand in his stead. "Everyone around him has been pushing for him to stand in order to protect themselves," said Benkoussa.
"Bouteflika is pretty much incapacitated to do much of anything," said John Entelis, a professor of political science at Fordham University in the US. "It's beyond me to believe he wants to stay other than because it's in the interests of the political and military elite, because he serves the status quo."
In recent weeks, government officials and representatives of the country's main political party, the Front de Liberation National (FLN), and the main trade union, the Union Générale des Travailleurs Algériens, have spoken out in favour of a fourth Bouteflika term in the interest of stability. "The irony is that a sick Bouteflika is more stable than a healthy unknown who no one knows what direction they'll go in," said Entelis.
But there is an increasing disconnect between the regime and the Algerian people. More than 70 percent of Algerians are under the age of 30, but few believe their interests are served by elections. There's even a word in Algerian Arabic for the regime's attitude to their people: la hogra, meaning contempt or disdain.
Oil earnings have enabled the government to buy social peace, but this isn't sustainable. People think that everything is okay because they are given subsidies.
In the 2012 parliamentary elections, the official turnout was 43 percent, but 18 percent were spoiled or invalid ballots, and 17 percent of votes that were cast for a party went to ones that failed to win any seats.
"Young Algerians don't want too much," said Benkoussa. "They want a decent job, they want to be able to buy a house or a flat, they want their children to have a decent education, and their parents to be able to go to a good hospital. It's time now to talk about the hopes of the next generation in Algeria, to rebuild our confidence and ensure our state will be led by strong institutions that preserve the rights of the people of Algeria and which will serve their future. We need to build a real democracy in Algeria."
The concern, though, is that now that it has been decided that Bouteflika will stand, this opportunity will be lost. There is no doubt that with the machinery of the state and the FLN behind him, the president will win the coming election. Any other scenario would be "far-fetched", according to Entelis.
Several political parties - including the moderate Islamist party Mouvement de la societe pour la paix and the secular Rassemblement pour la culture et la democratie - have already said they will boycott the elections, claiming that the result is predetermined.
At least 100 candidates have declared their intention to run in the elections, according to an announcement on the state news agency, Algerie Presse Service, on February 22, meaning that if there is opposition to the government it will likely be fatally split. In the 2012 parliamentary elections, the ruling FLN increased its number of seats despite a larger number of alternatives to choose from.
A 'social explosion'?
The regime itself has shown little appetite for change, and an already delayed programme of constitutional reform has been widely ridiculed as no more than window dressing. But another five years of political stagnation could have grave consequences for the country.
Algeria has the fourth-largest oil reserves in Africa and the second-largest gas reserves. But production has languished in recent years, and efforts to diversify the economy have fallen flat. Although the government has foreign exchange reserves of some $200bn, it is also running a budget deficit of more than 20 percent. Official unemployment is 10 percent, but youth unemployment is 21 percent, according to the International Monetary Fund.
"It's an illusion that everything is fine," said Benkoussa. "Oil earnings have enabled the government to buy social peace, but this isn't sustainable. People think that everything is okay because they are given subsidies. But if this stops then there could be a social explosion.
"There are all the ingredients for social instability. If we miss this opportunity for reform, it will be too late for Algeria."