Algeria sets April election, no word on Bouteflika candidacy

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has been in office since 1999, has rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013 which bound him to a wheelchair. (AFP)
Updated 18 January 2019

Algeria sets April election, no word on Bouteflika candidacy

  • The 81-year-old leader is unlikely to face competition from within ruling circles

ALGIERS: Algeria on Friday announced a presidential election for April 18 without indicating whether veteran leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika would stand, following calls for his nomination by a loyal ruling caste of businessmen, trade unions and the military.

The 81-year old leader, who has been in office since 1999 and rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013, has now 45 days to say whether he wants to seek a fifth term.

Under the constitution the election date was made necessary by the expiry in April of Bouteflika’s fourth term.

Algeria’s ruling coalition and other leading figures in labor unions and the business world had previously urged him to run again for the presidency.

But there have been concerns about his health.

In December, Boutelfika, who has been wheelchair-bound since 2013, was unable to meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman when he came to Algiers for a two-day visit due to acute flu.

His last meeting with a senior foreign official was during a visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sept. 17. An earlier meeting with Merkel and a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte were canceled.

The North African country, an OPEC oil producer, avoided the major political upheaval seen in many other Arab countries in the past decade but has experienced some protests and strikes. Unemployment, especially among young people, remains high.

The economy has improved over the past year as oil and gas revenues have picked up, allowing authorities to ease austerity measures imposed when they halved between 2014 to 2017. Oil and gas revenues account for 60 percent of the budget and 94 percent of export revenues.

Civil war

Bouteflika’s announcement of the election date will ease concerns that the vote might get postponed, say analysts.

In 1991, the army canceled elections which a conservative party was set to win, triggering almost a decade of civil war that killed some 200,000 people.

“This decision shows that Bouteflika is sticking to the constitution,” said political analyst Arslan Chikhaoui.

Observers say if Bouteflika runs again he is set to win, as the opposition is divided into conservatives and secular parties.

Bouteflika is part of a thinning elite of the veterans who fought France in the 1954-1962 independence war and have run Algeria ever since. Many also credit him with ending the civil war by offering former extremist fighters amnesty.

Bouteflika’s supporters say his mind remains sharp, even though he needs a microphone to speak. The opposition says he is not fit to run again.

He is unlikely to face competition from within ruling circles. Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, leader of the National Rally for Democracy (RND) allied to the FLN, has already said he will not run if Bouteflika goes for a fifth term.

Nobody has yet said they will run against Bouteflika, even though the president has said he wants more competition. He won with 82 percent of the vote in 2014, 90 percent in 2009, 85 percent in 2004 and 74 percent in 1999.

The government has said it wants to diversify the economy away from oil and gas, which accounts for 60 percent of budget finances, but there has been resistance from those within the ruling elite to opening up to foreign investment.

That has left the economy dominated by the state and firms run by business tycoons.

‘I am Algeria’

When he came to power, with the support of an army battling guerrillas, nobody expected him to stay in office for so long.

But “Boutef,” as many Algerians nickname him, was instrumental in fostering peace after a decade-long civil war in the 1990s.

“I am the whole of Algeria. I am the embodiment of the Algerian people,” he said in 1999, the year he became president.

But he has had a long battle with illness and frequently flown to France for treatment.

Known for wearing a three-piece suit even in the stifling heat, he gained respect from many for his role in ending the civil war, which official figures say killed nearly 200,000 people.

Golan Druze protest Trump’s pledge to Israel

Druze people take part in a rally over U.S. President Donald Trump's support for Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, in Majdal Shams near the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria in the Israeli occupied Golan Heights March 23, 2019. (REUTERS)
Updated 8 min 55 sec ago

Golan Druze protest Trump’s pledge to Israel

  • Wasef Khatar, a Druze community representative, said Trump was making commitments on “Arab, Syrian land, not Israeli”

GOLAN HEIGHTS: Druze on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights took to the streets in protest at US President Donald Trump’s pledge to recognise the Jewish state’s sovereignty there.
Trump broke with decades of US Middle East policy, and longstanding international consensus, when he posted a Tweet on Thursday that said it was time to accept Israel’s widely contested claim to the strategic plateau.
Tens of thousands of Syrians fled or were expelled when Israel seized part of the Golan during the 1967 Six-Day War, subsequently annexing it in 1981.
Some remained, however, and today around 23,000 Druze reside in the Israeli-controlled sector, alongside 25,000 Israeli settlers.
On Saturday Druze men, women and children rallied in the town of Majdal Shams, adjacent to the armistice line between the Golan’s Israeli and Syrian-controlled sectors. They waved Druze and Syrian flags.
Trump will sign an order recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights when he meets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington on Monday, Israel’s Foreign Minister Israel Katz announced on Twitter.
“President Trump will sign tomorrow in the presence of PM Netanyahu an order recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights,” FKatz wrote on Twitter.

Wasef Khatar, a Druze community representative, said Trump was making commitments on “Arab, Syrian land, not Israeli.”
“We reject the decision of the American president Trump because he is talking about something he doesn own,” he said in Arabic.
Trump’s move was hinted at a week ago when the US State Department changed its description of the area from “occupied” to “Israeli-controlled”.
It is yet to be made operative by an act of Congress or an executive order.
Israel regards the Golan as a strategic asset, because its hills overlook northern Israeli towns, particularly near its inland Sea of Galilee. Around 20,000 Jewish settlers live in the Golan itself, many working in farming, leisure and tourism.
Many Israeli commentators saw Trump’s declaration as a timely boost for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of Israeli elections scheduled for April 9, in which he has been dogged by corruption allegations.
But some Israelis living in and around the Golan said Trump’s gesture would change little on the ground.
“The US recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan makes us happy. However, our daily routine does not involve dealing with whether Israeli sovereignty is being recognised or not,” said Haim Rokah, head of the regional Israeli council in the Golan.
Rami Yogev, 65, a resident of Dan kibbutz, which is overlooked by the Golan, said he remembers shelling from the then Syrian-controlled heights onto his town during the 1967 war.
“I don’t think Trump’s announcement will make any difference here. It’s not going to change anything. The residents in the Golan already feel like they’re Israelis. They have a better life than being in Syria or any Arab country — just look what happened in the war in Syria,” he said.