TUNIS // Algeria's presidential election is more than a month away but the incumbent, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, seems to have already won it handily. So say his major political rivals anyway. Most have pledged to boycott an election in April that is widely expected to deliver Mr Bouteflika a controversial third mandate. Meanwhile, analysts predict a spike in Islamist violence as Algerian militants seek to signal their own rejection of the coming election. In November, Algeria's parliament lifted presidential term limits, a move seen by many as a manoeuvre to allow Mr Bouteflika to keep his job. The president's supporters argue that no one matches his ability to ensure order in a country struggling with high unemployment, a housing crisis and an Islamic insurgency left over from a devastating civil war that killed about 150,000 in the 1990s. But opposition parties have accused Mr Bouteflika of eroding Algerian democracy and seeking to become president for life. Now his major rivals are queuing up to renounce the election, scheduled for April 9, by refusing to take part in it. Last week, the Socialist Forces Front, a leading Algerian opposition party, declared it would boycott the presidential election and called on voters to do the same, saying in a statement that "the regime cannot and will not change". Liamine Zeroual, president of Algeria from 1995 to 1998, has refused to stand for election, and Rheda Malek, a former prime minister, has dropped out of politics entirely. Abdallah Djaballah, a leader of the country's non-violent Islamist movement who has previously contested the presidency, announced that he will not do so this time. "The political arena has been closed for nearly a decade," Mr Djaballah told the Reuters news agency in an interview. "The regime has tamed the political parties that accepted to be tamed and has broken those that refused to be tamed." Mr Djaballah and other critics of the government have predicted that disillusionment will keep many Algerians home on polling day, as happened at legislative elections in 2007. Official figures put voter turnout then at just 35 per cent - a record low. Since his first election as president in 1999, Mr Bouteflika has won praise for re-establishing the role of civilian leaders following military dominance after civil war broke out in 1992. He was re-elected in a landslide in 2004 on pledges to bring peace to Algeria through a programme of amnesties for militants. Mr Bouteflika, a former foreign minister, also enjoys good relations with the United States and Europe and has the backing of Algeria's military and security apparatus, still a major force in the country, said George Joffe, director of the Centre for North African Studies at Cambridge University. "There's a certain stability in continuity," Mr Joffe said, "and some Algerians may support Mr Bouteflika for that reason." But for many Algerians, Mr Bouteflika is increasingly identified with ossified politics and elusive prosperity. The country's booming hydrocarbons industry has not eased an unemployment rate that the government puts at 13 per cent, while government targets to produce one million new jobs and housing units have so far not been met. Announcing his candidacy last week, Mr Bouteflika promised to spend US$150 billion (Dh551bn) of surplus oil revenues on development. Meanwhile, despite a plan approved by referendum in 2005 to move past the civil war by offering amnesty to some Islamist militants, a small hardcore group of fighters has since allied with al Qa'eda and continues to stage bomb attacks, mainly against government forces. More than a decade of violence has sapped popular support for Islamic militancy, said Wolfram Lacher, North Africa analyst for Control Risks, a London-based security assessment firm. But the group, which today calls itself al Qa'eda in the Islamic Maghreb, may still tap into the disaffection of young Algerians growing up poor and idle, said Mr Joffe. "If the economic situation worsens, there's a good chance of a growth in violence." As the presidential election approaches, militants may seek to make their own statement against Mr Bouteflika, who has vowed to defeat Islamist militancy in Algeria, said Mr Lacher. Algerian security forces have foiled some planned attacks and captured or killed terrorist suspects in recent weeks, Mr Lacher said. "That means the group will be quite eager to demonstrate that it still has the capability to carry out attacks." Just hours after Mr Bouteflika formally announced his candidacy eight days ago, militants used a roadside bomb to blow apart a minivan, with the blast killing four passengers. A second bomb killed two soldiers and a medic who had gone to the scene. That attack, and the killing of seven other soldiers over the weekend, has made the past week the bloodiest since August, when militants killed 43 people with a car bomb, many of them young would-be gendarmes queuing outside a recruitment centre. However, the flurry of violence is unlikely to influence voter turnout or the outcome of the election, Mr Lacher said. "The militants' main aim is to demonstrate their resentment of the fact that the government is well-installed and the president can be easily re-elected." firstname.lastname@example.org
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