Polling stations have closed in the first presidential elections to be held in Algeria since the resignation of the ailing former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika last April. Former prime minister Abdelmajid Tebboune, 74, has won with 58 percent of the votes. “Nothing new but it marks a comeback for one of the men closest to Bouteflika. When he was prime minister he tried to promote the former president’s ties with the business world,” explained Caterina Roggero, a lecturer at the University of Milan-Bicocca.
The election was accompanied by a day of protests. Turnout for the presidential elections was low at just 40 percent. In line with the turnout in 2017 (38 percent). The first demonstrations broke out in February 2019 and the election was postponed in July due to the absence of candidates. Many Algerians had supported a boycott of the election, accusing members of the old regime and military leaders of wanting to maintain the status quo. In addition to Tebboune, the presidential candidates allowed to stand by the independent election monitoring authority (NIEMA) were the former prime minister, Ali Benflis, the former tourism minister, Abdelakader Bengrina, the former minister of Culture, Azzedine Mihoubi, and the leader of the Mostakbal (Future) party, Abdelaziz Belaid.
The eve of the election was marked by 42 consecutive weeks of protests. The last one last Wednesday was held at the beginning of demonstrations against French occupation in 1960. The Interior Minister, Salah Eddine Dahmoune, defined those participating in street protests “traitors”. The slogans chanted by protesters include a demand to cancel the election held on December 12, criticism of the de facto leader of the transition phase, Lieutenant General of the Algerian army, Ahmed Gaid Salah, along with demands for the interim president, Abdelkader Bensalah (whose mandate has expired for five months), and the prime minister, Noureddine Bedoui, to resign. For the first time in Algerian history, the five candidates took part in a pre-election television debate. There was little popular participation in the rallies held before the vote. Among the candidates, Abdelmadjid Tebboune was prime minister for three months in 2017, while Ali Benflis held the same position for three years from 2000 to 2003. Benflis was later appointed secretary of Bouteflika's party: the National Liberation Front (FLN). Meanwhile, Azzedine Mihoubi was a public radio director, while Abdelaziz Belaid was also a member of the FNL. Finally, Abdelkader Bengrina is leader of the el-Binaa Islamist party and was a minister from 1997 to 1999.
The high profile arrests of men close to Bouteflika on the eve of the vote include the former prime minister, Ahmed Ouyahia, sentenced to 15 years, and his predecessor, Abdelmalek Sellal, sentenced to 12 years. An international arrest warrant has been issued against the former Minister of Industry, Abdesslam Bouchouareb, sentenced to 20 years in prison. “These people were judged by military courts. The army currently holds the reins of power,” explained Dalia Ghanem of the Carnegie Endowment for Middle East Peace think tank. “The low turnout, however, weakens the president's legitimacy,” he added.
In a country highly dependent on oil and gas exports, falling oil and gas prices have strongly affected the local economy. In 2018, the oil and gas sectors accounted for 94% of exports and 60% of the budget, according to data published by Reuters. However, earnings from the two sectors fell by 6.3% to 17.65 billion dollars between January and June 2019. Finally, the system of public subsidies that has sustained popular support for the regime is no longer sustainable for local balances.
The country's economy is firmly in the hands of the military, a key player since independence from France in 1962. According to Professor of Sociology of the University of Algiers, Nacer Djabi, the military tried to retain their privileges after Bouteflika's resignation. The army does not want to continue to hold political power in its hands, but would like to delegate it to a civil leader who also defends the interests of the military elite, as Bouteflika has done over the last twenty years. The protest movement has instead been accused of not offering an alternative model to the current economic governance of the country. Said Salhi, vice president of the Algerian league for the defense of human rights, said that the so-called Hirak (protest) movement does not aim to offer solutions to high unemployment rates and the economic crisis. “We want to turn the page from the previous status quo,” he admitted. Salhi added that in the repeated meetings with representatives of civil society two proposals emerged for the transition phase: “a transitional presidency or the election of a constituent assembly”.
After months of protests, Algerians have elected a new president following the resignation last April of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The very short election campaign resulted in a low turnout, which led to the victory of the former premier, Abdelmajid Tebboune. Hit by years of economic crisis, protesters would like a more significant change in economic policy than in the past and the removal of some of the old regime's men from country’s future. The dilemma for the new president now will be whether to continue to repress the demonstrations or open a dialogue with the protesters on the streets.
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