Monday, April 7, 2014

Absentee Bouteflika dominates Algerian presidential poll

At a packed sports hall in western Algeria, portraits of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika gaze down on supporters rallying for his re-election. But the leader himself, weakened by a stroke a year ago, is a no-show.Throughout campaigning for the April 17 polls, Bouteflika has remained mostly out of the public eye apart from brief television appearances, as he has done since falling ill.

His absences, and his health, have raised doubts about what will happen after the election in an OPEC oil exporter that supplies a fifth of Europe's gas, and plays a significant role in the Western war on Islamist militants.For now, Bouteflika is campaigning by proxy. With his former prime minister and allies crisscrossing Algeria in his name, the 77-year-old independence veteran is almost assured of a fourth term after 15 years leading the nation.They promise that Bouteflika, who is credited with ending a civil war in the 1990s between the state and domestic Islamist militants, can keep Algeria stable.

This is a powerful message in a country still traumatized by the conflict that killed 200,000 and left little appetite for the turmoil unleashed on its neighbors after the revolts of 2011 in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.It is a theme that goes down well at the sports hall in Chlef. This is deep in loyalist territory, the farming provinces ravaged by the war where Bouteflika is hailed as the man who delivered peace, and who can keep delivering it."He is like a father to us," said Fatima Benahou, a public administrator at the rally. "He means stability, security. We supported him yesterday, and we are loyal so the least we can do is recognize what he has done."

Opponents dismiss Bouteflika's bid as the last breath of the old guard from the ruling Front de Liberation Nationale party (FLN) which has dominated Algerian politics since 1962 independence from France.With the backing of the political machinery of the FLN, army factions and business elite, Bouteflika faces little challenge from rival candidates despite his absences.On Thursday, state television showed him greeting the Emir of Qatar, and talking and joking in French with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, his longest public appearance in a year.

Algeria resisted the upheaval of the Arab Spring, largely due to the aversion to instability. With $200 billion in reserves built up from oil and gas exports, state spending on social programs, credits and housing eased any unrest.Instead, Algeria's struggles go on behind closed doors between the independence-era clans - the FLN elite and the army intelligence agency DRS - which see themselves as guardians of stability.

Source: Reuters

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