Algerians head to the polls today to vote in presidential elections. Although six candidates are running, the country’s long-serving president, seventy-seven year old Abdelaziz Bouteflika, is expected to coast to a fourth term. In a region rife with revolution, Algeria is caught in a political time warp. The ruling elite swim against the tide of political change that the Arab uprisings unleashed. They rally around the ailing Bouteflika–who suffered a stroke in 2013 and has rarely been seen in public during the campaign–as the candidate of stability and security.
Many Algerians fear the political chaos that surrounds them (“we don’t want to turn out like Libya” is a common refrain); memories of the country’s harsh civil war, which claimed as many as 200,000 lives before Bouteflika helped bring it to an end in the late 1990s, are still raw. Yet Bouteflika’s reach for another term has nevertheless sparked public discontent. With no hope of unseating him, Islamic and secular opposition groups are instead calling for a national boycott of the elections in an effort to discredit the process. Voter turnout is expected to be low.
A middle-class youth group, Barakat (“enough” in Algerian-Arabic dialect), has tapped into a rising desire for political change. Barakat rails against the closed political system, state corruption, rampant unemployment, and Bouteflika’s manipulation of the constitution to allow for longer presidential terms. During the campaign, it has organized protests in the capital of Algiers and peripheral cities. Although the protests have been small, they point to growing dissatisfaction among youth.
Bouteflika will undoubtedly be re-elected, but his next term is unlikely to be a smooth one. There are several significant challenges that he and his government will have to confront to maintain stability and head off increasing public discontent:
First, there is growing public dissatisfaction over the country’s economic stagnation. Citizens are increasingly fed up with unemployment and underemployment. Overall unemployment is reported at 10 percent and youth unemployment upward of 20 percent, but the real number is no doubt much higher. Though the official unemployment level has declined over the past decade, the number of Algerians in informal employment and temporary jobs has increased, leading to job insecurity and low-wage work. Energy receipts, which constitute about 70 percent of public revenues, have been largely devoted to the state’s patronage system instead of invested in productive capacity. The majority of energy rents are spent on current consumption, notably civil servant wages, fuel and food subsidies, farmer assistance, and social housing, not productive investments. Education and healthcare have been woefully underfunded. Problems are compounded by high-level government corruption and cronyism that have impeded private sector growth, and discouraged foreign investment. The state’s central focus on oil and gas production has also created an undiversified economy, with oil and gas accounting for 98 percent of exports. There is also concern that the government’s energy revenues might not last much longer. Declining reserves and increasing domestic consumption could significantly reduce Algeria’s energy exports within the decade.
Second, there is a looming succession challenge. Bouteflika appears increasingly incapacitated (he could not stand on his own during his recent meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry, and his speech was slurred), and may not survive another term. Meanwhile, the pool of strong potential successors among the ruling elite–those with the stature of having played an important role in the Algerian war of independence–is narrowing. The ruling regime may be hard pressed to field a leader who can hold the center together.
Third, terrorism continues to pose a threat to the state. The Algerian government has long been a target of Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) and offshoot groups, which aim to overthrow the “un-Islamic” government. Recently, the activity and influence of terrorist groups in the Sahel and Maghreb have increased, benefiting from the weakness of transitional governments in Libya and Tunisia and increasingly porous regional borders. Mitigating the danger of terrorism will continue to be a priority and may require expanding cooperative relations with neighboring countries.
As Bouteflika and his government anticipate a decisive victory, they would do well to bear in mind the political and economic challenges ahead, and muster the political will to make the difficult but necessary reforms to boost economic performance, alleviate socioeconomic pressures fueling unrest, drive back terrorist groups, and set the stage for political succession.