Algeria’s ailing president will not seek a fifth term, following mass demonstrations against his 20-year rule. Now the world is poised to see who becomes the next leader.
After barely being seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has said he will not run for a fifth term and will postpone national elections. The new date for the elections has not been set.
His statement also pledged that a new constitution would be submitted to the public for a referendum.
Protests have taken Algeria by storm and more than 186 applicants are seeking candidacy for the presidential ballot, more than double the number of potential candidates in the North African country’s 2014 election.
Most applicants were not able to gather enough signatures to qualify for the presidential ballot, however.
The number of candidates is largely seen as a sign of frustration with the status quo.
To make it on to the ballot, candidates must gather 60,000 signatures from citizens or 6,000 signatures from elected officials - from over 25 of Algeria’s 48 administrative regions.
Algeria’s presidential race will feature a record number of candidates ahead of the April 2019 election.
Mohamed Laggab of Algiers University describes a large number of possible candidates as a sign of the decay in Algerian politics.
“Political practices have fallen to an all-time low. When owners of dirty money buy parliamentary seats with billions, when people implicated in legal scandals find themselves in visible political posts, and when people with no intellectual experience and no political conscience want to become president, minister, senator — then you cannot be surprised to find these types of candidates today,” he explained.
"Twenty-one candidates have formally registered for the presidential election of 18 April," Algeria’s Constitutional Council said in a statement.
"The Constitutional Council has started, looking into the applications and verifying the eligibility of the candidates," the statement said.
The vetting procedure began following the of candidacy applications on March 3, 2019.
The constitutional body has until March 14 to decide on the list of candidates
By law, presidential hopefuls must establish that they are medically fit to run in election.
Who are the main contenders?
There are a broad range of new and old challengers, notably former prime minister Ali Benflis, a runner-up in the country's 2014 elections, and a range of new opposition candidates, including the influential retired general Ali Ghediri, businessman Rachid Nekaz, and Abderazak Makri, leader of the Movement for the Society of Peace.
The 64-year-old Ghediri, who retired as a general in 2015, may represent a threat to the continuous rule of the National Liberation Front (FLN) since the North African country gained independence in 1967.
In his candidacy bid, he declared: “I have decided to take up the challenge by running in the presidential election.
“This major challenge ... involves questioning, without any taboos, the established order.”
Ghediri initially enjoyed a high profile with a string of media appearances, but has been absent from the public eye in recent weeks.
In an interview with El Watan newspaper, he wrongly speculated that elections would not be postponed because the army would intervene if any such move took place.
His comments led to a warning from the defence ministry, which threatened to take him to court if he violated rules on the conduct of former military officers.
This was followed by reports of the arrest of 13 senior officers, detained over contact with Ghediri, under orders of the Chief of Staff, Gaid Salah, the last remaining senior military figure following Bouteflika’s most recent purge of the military in 2018.
Ghediri is perceived to have close ties with former intelligence chief Mohamed Mediene, known as Toufik or ‘the God of Algeria’, who headed up Algeria’s most powerful spy agency for decades, before being arrested by Bouteflika as part of a purge in 2016.
In spite of the warning from the military, the former military general is largely seen to have close ties to the military establishment, having received financial benefits from fellow generals between 1989 and 1991 during the military’s privatisation of key state industries.
The Algerian defence ministry denied the news and refused to provide comment on the leak first reported by El Watan, sourced from an anonymous military source.
Businessman Rachid Nekkaz enjoys a mass following among young people, particularly on social media.
The businessman gained acclaim after committing to pay fines issued in Denmark for breaches of the Burqa ban.
His candidacy was barred due to electoral laws on nationality, given that he once held French citizenship, which he gave up in 2014 when he attempted to run for elections.
Despite renouncing his French citizenship, Algerian election laws forbid candidates to ever hold a second citizenship.
Hours after Nekkaz entered the Constitutional Council and was barred, a man by the same name left the building, introducing himself as, “Rachid Nekkaz, candidate for the presidential election”.
The following week, Nekkaz announced his candidacy had been barred, causing him to put forward his cousin with the same name.
“If my cousin is elected, we will immediately create the post of vice president… which I will assume”, he wrote on Facebook.
The plan would see Nekkaz’s cousin, a mechanic, resign so that the businessman could take over the presidency.
He described the action as “symbolic… just as Bouteflika’s presidency is symbolic”.
Businessman Nekkaz was arrested at the University hospital in Geneva on Friday March 8, where Bouteflika was being being treated. Nekkaz trespassed in the process of trying to find out the medical condition of the ailing President.
"There are 40 million Algerians who want to know where the president is," Nekkaz told a crowd of a few dozen people outside the hospital.
Bouteflika's main opponent in 2004 and 2014 was his former prime minister Ali Benflis.
Formerly a renowned FLN party member, he enjoys good ties with politicians within the ruling government and the opposition.
In spite of his bid for the presidency, he has fallen afoul of key opposition parties.
At a gathering of opposition parties, dubbed the Coordination Committee by Benflis, former chairman of the FLN, he called on the Constitutional Council to reject Bouteflika’s candidacy.
The meeting dissolved with the departure of several opposition leaders, including Karim Tabou, former secretary general of the Socialist Forces Front (FFS) party, who claimed that the Coordination Committee was ignoring the significance of events in the streets.
Growing opposition to Benflis’s Coordination Committee suggests that the group has been co-opted by the regime, as youth seek a new break with the old regime in favour of change and development for the country’s future.
The main Islamist party, the Movement for the Society of Peace (MSP), said that it would field its most widely-known candidate Abderrazak Makri, but his candidacy has not been confirmed.
The MSP is Algeria’s largest legally recognised Islamist party, with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Makri was a founding member of the MSP when it was launched as the MSI in 1990, and witnessed it’s removal from power by a military coup d’etat in 1991.
He went on to serve as a member of the Algerian parliament for 10 years, between 1997 and 2007. In 2013, he succeeded pro-government Bouguerra Soltani as leader of the MSP, building the party as a serious opposition party to the FLN.
In 2014, Makri led the MSP, along with other Islamist parties, in boycotting Algeria’s presidential elections. He also boycotted the 2016 constitutional process, claiming that “this constitution, which is neither consensual nor having the potential for great reforms, expresses only the views of the president and his entourage”.
His view is hardly unique. In the absence of different political circumstances, elections may be a foregone result even if Bouteflika does not run for a fifth term.
The far-left Workers' Party also announced on Saturday that it would not present a candidate, stating that the presidential election could not fulfill "the real desire for change".
Bouhired, 83, is an Algerian icon, immortalised in the film The Battle of Algiers. She is renowned as a heroine in the Algerian war of independence, where she fought with the resistance.
While she has yet to announce her candidacy, public pressure is mounting to see her run.
Throughout the Middle East, she is known as the ‘Arab Joan of Arc’.
In April 1957, Bouhired was arrested by the French military. FLN leader Saadi reportedly shot her to keep her from revealing resistance secrets.
Bouhired said she was raped and tortured during her detention for 17 days, in which her interrogators tried, in vain, to extract information about Saadi.
Consequently, she was sentenced to death by guillotine.
“I know you will sentence me to death but do not forget that by killing me you will not only assassinate freedom in your country but you will not prevent Algeria from becoming free and independent,” Bouhired told her captors at the time.
Algeria faces a fragile economic future, with declining oil prices around the world and an economy that is 95 percent dependent on oil and gas revenues.
To make matters worse, the government has been phasing out its subsidies on basic utilities and products, amidst increasing public resentment.
Algeria is also surrounded by regional instability, as terrorist activity persists in neighbouring countries such as Libya.
Algerian diplomacy has reached its lowest levels, given that Bouteflika is too sick to travel, leaving Algeria absent from international and regional forums.
While Bouteflika’s commitment to not run for a fifth term represent a ray of hope for many, protestors are conscious that it is only the first step on the road to realising Algeria’s potential.