NEW DELHI: For voters, elections are a time to celebrate democracy, make the right choices and opt for change if they deem fit. Algerians won’t have any such luxury this presidential election if they head out to the polling booths.
The run-up to the vote has seen many firsts but inspires little confidence. In April, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the longest-serving head of state of the north African country, reluctantly quit after weeks of street protests against his 20-year rule. The election has been deferred twice—a first in Independent Algeria—after leaderless street protests called ‘Hirak’ broke out in February when ailing Bouteflika, 82, announced he would seek a fifth straight term.
The army chief, General Ahmed Gaid Salah, stepped in to mollify protesters, demanding that the president, who suffered a stroke in2013, quit as he was too ill to discharge his duties. Bouteflika stepped down but the protesters didn’t, instead demanding action against widespread corruption and an overhaul of the political system and the army’s interference. General Salah has insisted he is committed to a free and fair election that he claims is a way out of the political flux but few believe him.
In September, a military court handed down a 15-year jail term to the brother of the ousted president for ‘conspiring against the state’ and ‘undermining the authority of the army’. Said Bouteflika was believed to be wielding the real political power since his brother fell ill. He was said to have contemplated imposing a state of emergency and firing the army chief to let his brother cling on to power.
To inject a dose of democracy ahead of the Presidential vote, a three-hour live televised debate was held last week, another first for the country. The five candidates running for president were asked questions by a panel of journalists drawn from the main public and private news outfits. Many viewers thought both the questions and the responses were mediocre.
Two days ago in an unprecedented development, an Algerian court sentenced two former prime ministers Ahmed Ouyahia and Abdelmalek Sellal, both close to Bouteflika, to 15 years and 12 years in jail for corruption. Three former industry ministers got heavy prison terms as well. These convictions haven’t been enough to wean people off protests.
If protesters are calling for a poll boycott, it’s because they say the vote is aimed at maintaining status quo, let alone purging the political system. Of the five candidates, two are former prime ministers and two others have been ministers, all of them with links to the earlier regime. That means Algeria’s voters have little to choose from.