Algeria’s presidential elections, scheduled for April 17, have stirred unprecedented controversy amid President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s decision to run for a fourth term.
Observers have questioned his ability to govern the country due to his poor health, as his public appearances have grown scarce over the last few months.
According to the Algerian Ministry of Interior, more than 22 million Algerians inside the country, and another one million living abroad, are eligible to vote in this week’s election.
Abdelaziz Bouteflika: Bouteflika, 77, first came to power in 1999 and was re-elected in 2004 and again in 2009 after having amended the constitution to allow him to stand again. He is credited with helping end Algeria’s civil war in the 1990s that killed 200,000. The last years of his rule as president have been dogged by corruption scandals implicating members of his inner circle and speculation about his health after he underwent surgery in 2005 for a stomach ulcer.
Ali Benflis: Benflis, 69, is considered to be Bouteflika’s main challenger. A former prime minister, he decided to stand in the election after a 10-year absence from politics after he lost the 2004 poll. Benflis previously served as a justice minister and co-founded Algeria’s League of Human Rights in the 1980s.
Louisa Hanoune: Hanoune, the only woman in the race is 59, a member of parliament and a prominent leftist politician who ran in two previous presidential contests. Hanoune heads the leftist Workers Party and co-founded an association for equal rights between the sexes in 1989. She was arrested twice in the 1980s when she worked for a clandestine socialist workers’ group.
Moussa Touati: Touati, 60, set up the Algerian National Front in 1999 and is a former soldier who was trained in Syria and in Libya. He has stood as a candidate in two past presidential elections. Touati worked for the customs authority and has headed a committee set up to defend the interests of children of those killed in the war of independence.
Ali Fawzi Rebaine: An optician by trade, 59-year-old Rebaine co-founded Algeria’s first human rights group in 1985 and three years later helped set up a national anti-torture panel. In 1985, he was arrested and sentenced to 13 years in prison on charges of undermining state security and membership of an illegal association. He was freed under a presidential pardon two years later.
Abdelaziz Belaid: A first-time challenger for the presidency, Belaid is the youngest of the six candidates at 50. He has headed the opposition el-Moustakbel Front since 2012, after quitting the ruling National Liberation Front, of which he was a member since he was 23. He has a PhD in medicine and a degree in law.
Six candidates will be competing in the presidential race: Bouteflika, Ali Benflis, Abdelaziz Belaid, Moussa Touati, Louisa Hanoune and Ali Fawzi Rebaine. All have participated in previous presidential elections, with the exception of Belaid, who is participating for the first time and is the youngest of the candidates.
Al Jazeera spoke with Benflis, Bouteflika’s main challenger, during a recent campaign stop in Skikda, northeastern Algeria.
Al Jazeera: How have the last few days of your campaign been going?
Ali Benflis: I started my campaign two weeks ago and visited more than 37 wilayas [provinces] and [was] warmly received in each one of them. I explained my campaign programme in detail. I am not alone – I have great support from more than 25 political parties, [and] 213 associations. Many of my representatives are helping out in various provinces and villages. So, by the end of my campaign, I will have visited almost all of Algeria’s provinces. At this stage, I can assess it as a very successful campaign.
AJ: In 2004, you lost a vote to Bouteflika, getting only six percent in the polls. What motivated you to go back to the political scene after a 10-year absence?
Benflis: Back in 2004, I was not competing on equal footing. I was not humiliated at all in 2004 after getting six percent of [the] polls, simply because the winner was massive fraud and the loser was democracy.
But, I would like to point out that even though I was not present in media in the last few years, I was still active in politics. I toured the country and met with Algerians from all over. The dire need [for] change is what motivated me the most to come back for these elections. Algeria cannot stand an obsolete government; it needs to move towards a peaceful and organised political change.
AJ: The issue of voter fraud is the most discussed topic among Algerians. This is a great concern among the people. What have you planned to ensure transparency at the polls?
Benflis: It is our right to preserve [the integrity of] our polls and call for fair elections. For these reasons, we intend to thoroughly supervise the electoral process, day and night. Our elections monitoring teams will be there to prevent any kind of fraud. This time, I have a system in place that will fight fraud, with 60,000 observers for 60,000 polling stations… We will not leave until we get our counting report. This way, we will be able to give the results in real time.
Concerning the 1999 elections, I was Bouteflika’s campaign director. I was not responsible for counting polls. I came to that government with intentions to make Algeria a better place. Later on when I discovered I was not on the right path, I was dismissed from my position because I had different views.
AJ: A lot is said about an eventual comeback of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) party and other Islamist parties to the political scene. What do you think about this?
Benflis: I am a man of national reconciliation and I’m very open to dialogue and unity. When I officially declared my candidacy for the April 17 elections, I said that I would be committed to organising a national dialogue, including all political factions. No one will be excluded, except those who refuse political action and choose violence to express their views. We cannot exclude any faction because citizenship is the right of every Algerian and no one can take it away.
AJ: What is your opinion of those boycotting the elections and the opposition movements that are using the streets to protest? You approved the anti-protest law in 2003.
Benflis: We have to admit that people who are intending to boycott the elections have their reasons, their fears, and their frustrations. However, perhaps the best way to fight fraud is to resist it. Concerning the [opposition] movements, I do not take any of them personally. I just respect their right to refuse the fourth term [of President Bouteflika].
There are a lot of people wondering why I am supporting street demonstrations while I was the person who approved the anti-demonstration law in 2003 in Algiers. The ban of public demonstrations was within the framework of the state at the time. [Algeria] was in a state of emergency.
I have completely assumed my responsibilities regarding this issue. My plan was to lift this law once the state of emergency was over, but I was not able to do it because I was dismissed from my position… in May 2003. This law was maintained 10 years after I left. It was the responsibility of my successors to decide whether to keep it or not. I assumed my responsibilities, from January 2001 to May 2003, for security reasons and to preserve public order.
AJ: How do you see this country post-April 17?
Benflis: Of course I will not keep silent. I will fight for transparency and democracy. This time, I am very confident and convinced that Algerians will not accept fraud and it [will] be their will that will win.