ALGIERS: Long held in suspicion in a largely state-controlled economy, Algerian businessmen are pouring cash into President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s re-election campaign, hoping to benefit from an expected fourth term for the incumbent.
By law, candidates are supposed to spend no more than $764,000 on their campaign unless the election goes to a second-round runoff.
But analysts say the legal limit is set impossibly low for a country which is Africa’s largest by area, paving the way for effectively unrestricted spending by the candidates, with the incumbent leading the way.
As the spending is technically illegal, no public record is kept of where the campaign funds come from.
But there is no shortage of businessmen eager to smooth the way for public contracts, or cut through Algeria’s notorious red tape to secure loans from state-owned banks or planning permission from local authorities.
Economist M’Hamed Hamidouche says the legal spending limit would not even cover the costs of renting the campaign booths the rival candidates set up.
“In reality, the candidates receive significant donations in cash, the origins of which are difficult to establish. There are no checks,” Hamidouche said.
Bouteflika’s campaign spending alone runs to at least 75 million euros ($104,223,700), Algerian press reports say.
A team of top aides, led by former Prime Minister Abdel-Malek Sellal, have been separately crisscrossing the vast North African nation to make the controversial case for the incumbent’s re-election as the 77-year-old is too sick to campaign himself.
First and foremost among his campaign contributors are the many businessmen dependent on public sector contracts in an economy driven by state-controlled oil and gas receipts, Hamidouche says.
Prominent among them is Ali Haddad, who is often seen with the aging president’s brother Said.
His ETRHB construction company has experienced meteoric success in the 15 years since Bouteflika came to power, securing state contracts worth an estimated $2.5 billion, according to the Algerian press.
Haddad, who already runs the pro-Bouteflika Dzair TV, has launched a new channel, Wiam, dedicated to covering the incumbent’s re-election campaign.
Since stepping down as premier in March, Bouteflika’s campaign chief Sellal has shuttled around the country in a plane chartered from state energy firm Sonatrach’s Tassili Airlines, accompanied by some 50 invited journalists.
The president’s main rival, Ali Benflis, who is seeking to oust Bouteflika at the second attempt after failing 10 years ago, has chartered an aircraft from state-owned carrier Air Algerie.
Businessmen in the services sector who have flourished during Bouteflika’s rule are another source of campaign funding, Hamidouche says.
Mahieddine Tahkout was a humble fruit and vegetable trader but now owns a fleet of buses which operate under contract to the higher Education Ministry, and also holds the distribution licenses for several Asian and European car manufacturers.
There are also many other businessmen who may not be seeking state contracts but who are still eager for support from the president’s entourage in navigating Algeria’s bureaucracy.
Algeria’s main employers’ organization, the Forum of Business Leaders, voted at a special meeting in March to support Bouteflika’s re-election. Several FCE members said they were “invited” to make pledges of between 5,000 euros and 500,000 euros to Bouteflika’s campaign, according to the news website Maghreb Emergent.
One member, food business boss Slim Othmani, charged that “threats” were made to extract donations from reluctant contributors.