Algerians Fume as Regime Loyalists Are Only Choice in Vote

(Bloomberg) --

Algerians have been in the streets for nine months demanding the right to choose a president with popular support. Yet at elections on Thursday, the choice will be between five regime loyalists.

Such prescribed options were a fixture of Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s 20-year reign. But since mass protests forced him out in April, it’s no longer enough to keep people quiet.

Instead, as the powerful army that’s in control of the OPEC nation presses ahead with the twice-delayed vote, candidates have been met by empty rallies, defaced posters and, in some cases, a barrage of eggs and tomatoes.

Algerians Fume as Regime Loyalists Are Only Choice in Vote

“There can be no vote with ‘the gang’” in control, said a protester in the capital Algiers, alluding to the widespread calls for the dethronement of an elite of powerful figures in the army, government and business world that’s ruled since the 1960s.

Top military commander Ahmed Gaid Salah says the election offers the chance for a new political beginning without plunging the North African country into the unknown.

The tension around the vote was clear Wednesday as truncheon-wielding police in the capital, Algiers, moved to violently disperse thousands of demonstrators who’d gathered at a central square. Large protests were also reported in Kabylie, a region home to many of Algeria’s Amazigh community, as well as in the eastern city of Constantine.

But by keeping a tight grip over who can stand, Salah risks perpetuating the paralysis that’s delayed efforts to rescue a stagnating oil-dependent economy and could pour fuel on the protests.

“The country is going to end up with a president who will suffer from a lack of legitimacy and will be under enormous pressure,” said Dalia Ghanem, a resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In an apparent attempt to show it’s sincere in seeking change, a criminal court on Tuesday jailed two former prime ministers and four other ex-government officials for corruption.

Algerians Fume as Regime Loyalists Are Only Choice in Vote

The 79-year-old Lieutenant General Salah will overshadow the new president, having already sided with protesters in nudging out his former boss, Bouteflika, then ordering a purge that ensnared many powerful figures.

Without a strong popular mandate -- many Algerians are expected to boycott the poll -- whoever wins the election would be “foolish” to cross Salah in “arbitrating turf battles between rival political factions, boosting the economy or sustaining state largesse,” said Anthony Skinner, Middle East and North Africa director at Verisk Maplecroft.

The most experienced of the five candidates is former Prime Minister Ali Benflis, who unsuccessfully challenged Bouteflika in 2004 and 2014. But his campaign has been rocked by the arrest of one of his staffers for alleged espionage.

Algerians Fume as Regime Loyalists Are Only Choice in Vote

Azzedine Mihoubi and Abdelmajid Tebboune, respectively former culture and housing ministers under Bouteflika, are also running.

The ruling National Liberation Front has endorsed Mihoubi, while a photograph of a relaxed Salah lighting up a cigarette for Tebboune during a public function went viral before the campaign started.

Algeria’s leaders for decades used memories of a catastrophic civil war in the 1990s and a massive subsidy system funded by oil sales to curb dissent. But since the oil-price plunge from 2014, foreign-currency reserves have slumped to an expected $67 billion this year, compared with $177 billion five years ago, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Officials signaled they may resort to external borrowing to help plug a budget deficit projected at 7.2% of gross domestic product. Something has to give and lawmakers last month backed a new energy law and the lifting of some foreign ownership restrictions in a bid to boost the economy.

There are no reliable opinion polls in Algeria, but none of those standing has a following among the largely leaderless protest movement, known as the Hirak, that would be needed to push through painful reforms.

That won’t stop the army holding up the election as a success, said Mohamed Hennad, a political science lecturer at Algiers University. “Once the new president is sworn in, the pouvoir will try to end the ‘Hirak’ arguing that it has accomplished its mission,” he said, adding that few will be listening.

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