ALGIERS: Algeria Friday formally set its next presidential election for April 17, but three months before what could be one of the most important votes in the country’s history, no one is sure who is running.
The elections could offer a rare chance for change and new personalities in a country long dominated by aging military figures.
Ailing three-term President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, however, hasn’t made clear whether he will run again. Even if the 76-year-old steps aside for a new generation, he or his military and government cohorts could have a huge influence in naming his successor.
The uncertainty before the April vote comes at a pivotal time for the country, as it faces economic turmoil, endless protests and a revival of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the North African branch of the terror network that grew out of the Algerian radical Islamist movement.
Algeria has always been run by the generation that fought in the 1958-62 war for independence against France. Once the world’s youngest foreign minister in the 1960s, Bouteflika took the presidency in 1999, and has dominated the country in the 15 years since.
The lack of clarity on whether he is running has kept other possible contenders from announcing their candidacies as the time for campaigning slips away. And the longer he waits, the less time they will have.
“It’s the first time since the establishment of political pluralism in Algeria that the candidates ... aren’t known on the eve of the convocation of the electoral body,” said Mohammad Saidj, a political analyst at University of Algiers.
Bouteflika’s own political party, the National Salvation Front, insists he will run for a fourth term, but there are creeping suspicions that he is just not up for it.
After he had a stroke in April, he spent four months convalescing in Paris and has appeared only sporadically on television, always seated and barely audible when he speaks. He returned Thursday after four days in a French hospital for a checkup amid rumors that he is unlikely to survive another five-year term.
“Algeria needs today a president who possesses all his mental and physical faculties to deal with the national and regional context,” Abdel-Razzak Mukri, the leader of the Islamist opposition alliance, told the Associated Press. “Those pushing him to run are irresponsible and only see their own interests and not those of the nation.”
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb had been soundly beaten by Bouteflika. Now it has been reborn as a Saharan organization active in Algeria’s deep south and in the little-governed areas of Mali, Niger and Libya.
In January 2013, Al-Qaeda linked militants stormed an Algerian natural gas plant near the Libyan border and took hostages. They were dislodged after three days by the military, but 39 foreign hostages died.
There has also been internal turmoil in this vast country of 37 million, with constant small demonstrations demanding more jobs, better services or bigger state handouts.
Algeria’s oil and gas production, which furnishes some 70 percent of budget revenue and 98 percent of the export earnings, has been dropping for years. Efforts to open up new areas of exploration have been limited by the political paralysis in the country.
Though officially a multiparty democracy with regular elections, Algeria’s powerful president dominates politics in constant negotiation with a shadowy group of army and intelligence generals working behind the scenes.
If Bouteflika were to run, he would undoubtedly win, with the support of two pro-government parties and the machinery of the state. If he doesn’t, that would open up the field to a new generation of political leaders and a degree of uncertainty in a country that clings to stability after a 1990s civil war with Islamist insurgents killed 200,000 people.
“His entourage knows he is in no state to be a candidate,” said analyst Rachid Tlemcani, who described talk of Bouteflika running again as a “bad joke.”
“But it continues to perpetuate the confusion to prevent the real candidates from emerging.”
The most prominent of such challengers is Ali Benflis, a former prime minister and former head of the powerful FLN governing party. He has set up campaign committees in several provinces, but refrained from announcing his candidacy. His aides now say he will officially enter the race Sunday.
Another former prime minister, Ahmad Benbitour, announced his candidacy weeks ago but lacks strong support. A few others declared they would contest the election, but they were not taken very seriously.
The clear beneficiary of the whole wait-and-see policy has been the prime minister, Abdel-Malek Sellal, who has crisscrossed the country in a series of high-profile trips to inaugurate government projects.
An affable politician, he hadn’t been taken seriously until he began to take on more and more of Bouteflika’s powers as the president’s condition deteriorated.
“If Bouteflika is not thinking of standing again, he will certainly want to influence the final choice of his successor,” said Hugh Roberts, a longtime expert on North African politics at Tufts University. “It is striking that functions normally performed by the president have been taken over by Sellal in recent months.”
Any delay in announcing Sellal’s candidacy could be due to behind-the-scenes negotiations with the military to gain his acceptance, as well as immunity for Bouteflika and his associates if the president resigns.
With one exception, all previous Algerian presidents have left office either through a coup or by dying.
Despite his frailty and age, it is also important not to count out the possibility that Bouteflika might cling to power, especially since he is in the process of reorganizing the country’s intelligence service in an effort to ease its grip on the state.
That would also mean that Algeria would avoid major changes. An oil state like Algeria largely exists to distribute its massive oil revenues, according to William Lawrence, a senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy, and likes to maintain the status quo rather than explore new leadership or hold competitive elections.
“Bouteflika extending means we’re delaying this scenario,” Lawrence said. The establishment “is very conservative, like a corporate board.”