Fraud charges and attacks tarnish landslide in Algeria
ALGIERS // Flattening his rivals and defying his critics, the Algerian president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, steamrolled to victory in elections last week with just over 90 per cent of the vote, according to official figures.
Now comes the hard part. Riots on Thursday at several polling stations, a spatter of terrorist attacks and accusations of massive electoral fraud underline the challenges Mr Bouteflika faces as he begins his third five-year term. Since he was first elected in 1999, Mr Bouteflika, 72, has won praise for steering Algeria out of devastating civil war that killed some 150,000. But high unemployment, rising costs of living and disillusionment with their country's politics have alienated a generation of young Algerians.
Meanwhile, despite a plan approved by referendum in 2005 to move past the civil war by offering amnesty to some Islamist militants, a small hard-core group of fighters has since allied with al Qa'eda and continues to stage bombings, mainly against government forces. “There's still an irreducible element of terrorism in certain parts of the country and growing disaffection, particularly among youth,” said George Joffe, the director of the Centre for North Africa Studies at Cambridge University. The country's booming hydrocarbons industry has not eased high unemployment, while government has so far failed to fulfil pledges to create one million new jobs and housing units. Most of Algeria's exports are hydrocarbons, which allowed the country to stockpile cash last year as oil prices soared past $140 a barrel. But a drop in sales predicted for this year by the energy ministry may trim Mr Bouteflika's budget as he moves into his new term. For now, he has promised to spend US$150 billion (Dh550.9bn) of surplus oil revenues on development over the next five years.
“But the question is how,” said Faycal Metaoui, an opinion writer at El Watan, a leading independent newspaper based in Algiers, the capital. “There's no real mechanism for managing government spending.” In the past, the government has often opted for showy public works to win over disgruntled voters, Mr Metaoui said. “Instead, it must focus on sectors that create jobs.” The government puts unemployment at 12 per cent, but independent analysts say it may be as high as 30 per cent among young people, who make up the bulk of Algeria's population of 34 million. However, it will need more than jobs to satisfy a generation fed up with politics-as-usual, said Nasser Djabi, a sociology professor at the University of Algiers. Fifty years ago the streets of Algiers ran with blood as the country wrested independence from France, which had colonised it since the mid-19th century. “Algerians feel that they waged a great revolution to have their country,” Mr Djabi said.
“People's concerns aren't just social, they're political,” Mr Djabi said. “The system needs reform.”
Thursday's election marked “incontestable progress for freedom of expression and the act of voting,” the interior minister, Yazid Zerhouni, told reporters on Friday. But opposition parties and four of Mr Bouteflika's five rival candidates have cried foul, accusing the interior ministry yesterday of stuffing ballot boxes and fixing numbers. The ministry said 74 per cent of voters had cast ballots, an unusually high turnout for Algeria.
Statements on Thursday by two parties said voter turnout was 18 per cent at best. The US government expressed concern over the fraud claims, while confirming its commitment to working with Mr Bouteflika.
Such doubts threaten to widen a long-standing rift between Algerians and their leaders, said Jacob Mundy, an expert on North Africa with the Middle East Research and Information Project.
While most Algerians today are under 30, much of the political class cut its teeth fighting the French in the 1954-62 War of Independence. Violence gripped Algeria again during the 1990s as a messy transition from one-party rule to multi-party democracy tipped the country into a civil war pitting government forces against an Islamist insurgency. Mr Bouteflika, a veteran of Algerian politics, has focused his previous two mandates on drawing a curtain on the bloodshed, and has capitalised on his earlier tenure as foreign minister to bring Algeria back to the international scene. “Algerians do want to turn the page,” said Mr Metaoui, of El Watan. “And Mr Bouteflika has brought stability.” So far, Mr Bouteflika has focused on overcoming the problems of the past,” said Mr Djabi. “The third mandate should be about addressing the problems of the future.”
John Thorne, Foreign Correspondent (The National, Dubaï )
Bouteflika sure of third term in crucial presidential polls
AHEAD of today's crucial election, Algerians are looking largely with frustration or indifference toward the presidential polls set to hand Abdelaziz Bouteflika another five years at the helm of the United States (U.S.) ally with vast gas reserves, soaring youth unemployment and an active al-Qaeda offshoot.
The left-wing opposition, many Islamist leaders, and the chief of al-Qaeda in Islamic North Africa have called for a boycott of the vote and predicted fraud. Bouteflika, who was first elected with the army's backing in 1999 and again in 2004, enjoys support of all key government players.
He faces five low-profile opponents, but none has successfully challenged Bouteflika's message of continuity and reconciliation after an insurgency that ravaged this North African country in the 1990s.
The president, 72, had the constitution changed last year so he could run again. There is so little suspense about the outcome that voter turnout is viewed as the key test of the election.
Bouteflika's campaign, according to The Associated Press (AP) said that the president wanted 60 per cent turnout, and had predicted he should win at least 75 per cent of votes cast.
Critics say voters are being threatened that they will be denied government services if they can't prove they voted. Opponents also say there is little control over itinerant voting bureaus for nomads in the southern Sahara Desert and for bureaus in military barracks or other reclusive government-controlled zones. No UN observers will monitor the voting.
Elhaj Boualem, who sells fruits in the Casbah, the often-restive historic center of the capital, Algiers, said he lost faith in voting since 1992, when authorities canceled legislative elections that Islamists were poised to win. That sparked a cycle of bloodshed that killed up to an estimated 200,000 people over the ensuing decade.
"I'll just cast a blank ballot," said Boualem. He said he was only voting because local authorities told him his housing application would be rejected if he couldn't produce a stamped voter's card.
"We're all still living at my mother's," said the 58-year-old father of three.
The president's programme hinges on continuity.
"It is indispensable for me to pursue and consolidate the reconstruction work of the past 10 years," Bouteflika told a crowd Monday at his closing campaign rally. Though wary of his prolonged stay at the helm of the country, most people credit Bouteflika with bringing relative calm after 10 years of insurgency, and for building new infrastructure. His National Reconciliation charter, passed by referendum in 2005, has offered to pardon insurgents in exchange for peace. During his campaign, he repeatedly hinted that he could offer a new, blanket amnesty if the last militants from al-Qaeda in Islamic North Africa renounce their near-daily ambushes or bombings and turn themselves in. Bouteflika's tenure has also seen a large investments in roads, dams, and housing, part of a $200 billion program funded through Algeria's large oil and natural gas exports.
"I'll vote for him because of what he's done," said Khadidja Warriq, 62, shopping in Algiers. "But he'd better get potatoes under 100 dinars," or euro one per kilogramme, she said, echoing widespread anxiety among Algerians at the soaring cost of living. Many Algerians, however, have voiced indifference to the drab, three-week campaign that has seen posters of Bouteflika plastered on nearly every street of the country, but offered no public debate and precious few counter-programmes by his opponents. With most leading Islamists banned from politics in this overwhelmingly Moslem country, candidates running against Bouteflika include one woman from a small, far-left party, two nationalists, and two relatively moderate Islamist-leaning politicians. Louisa Hanoune, who heads the Trotskyist Workers' Party, promised voters she'd "give them back their say." Moussa Touati, who leads the Algerian National Front, pledged to "let the youth build their country."
The other three candidates, none of whom received much media coverage or made large public appearances, say they don't stand a chance because the Algerian state has turned into an electoral machine for Bouteflika.
The Interior Ministry sought to deflect any fraud concerns by issuing a statement this week called "Guarantees of transparency and credibility for the electoral operations."
Faycal Metaoui, an editorialist at the El Watan newspaper, which faces some 30 lawsuits in part because it opposed changing the constitution to allow the president to run for a third term, is convinced voter turnout will be minimal because Bouteflika is too old and too secluded to appeal to ordinary Algerians anymore.
"The President is out of touch with society," especially the young, said Metaoui.
Nearly 70 per cent of the population is under 30, and vast numbers are unemployed or surviving on odd jobs. Despair and frustration is growing within this generation, and more are tempted by illegal emigration.
"I'd never vote," said Ayman Brahimi, 25, a street vendor in the Casbah who wore the staple outfit of fake western sports brands.
"Voting, for me, is to leave the country as soon as I can," he said.
The Guardian (Grande Bretagne)
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