x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Algeria lawmakers lift presidential term limits

Lawmakers have overwhelmingly approved a controversial revision to Algeria's constitution that lifts the limit on presidential terms

RABAT // Algeria is turning a page - maybe. Yesterday, lawmakers overwhelmingly approved a controversial revision to Algeria's constitution that lifts the limit on presidential terms, seen by analysts and the country's opposition as a manoeuvre to allow the president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, to stand for a third five-year term in April - a contest he is widely expected to win. Analysts said the move will give little solace to a population of 34 million largely disillusioned with politics. But for now, a continuing Bouteflika presidency offers stability to 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. The big question is whether Mr Bouteflika, 71, will use his nearly inevitable third term to prepare Algeria for a new generation of leaders to take over from an ageing political class that cut its teeth in the former French colony's independence struggle during the 1950s and 1960s, analysts said. Since his first election as president in 1999, Mr Bouteflika has re-established the role of civilian leaders following military dominance after civil war broke out in 1992, said Marina Ottoway, director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "Eventually Algeria will have to face the transition from Bouteflika," she said. "It could be positive if there was an active attempt by him and the military to prepare a succession plan, but we haven't seen anything so far." Algeria's military and security apparatus remains a major force in the country, and few political decisions are made without its blessing, said Michael Willis, professor of Moroccan and Mediterranean Studies at Oxford University's Middle East Centre. Mr Bouteflika has said that lifting term limits boosts democracy in Algeria. But his critics have protested that the move is a sign of authoritarian ambitions. "Like many other potentates elsewhere in the world, he has always wanted to be president for life," Rachid Benyelles, a retired general, wrote last week in El Watan, a leading Algerian daily newspaper. His article was reprinted in abridged form on Monday in Le Monde, France's paper of record. Algerian opposition parties have charged Mr Bouteflika with seeking to strengthen the presidency's dominance over the courts and legislature, which they say erodes Algeria's democratic mechanisms. That is unwelcome fare for ordinary Algerians, largely disaffected with their country's politics, said Martin Evans, a professor of European and international studies at the University of Portsmouth. Official figures put voter turnout at just 35 per cent in legislative elections last year - a record low. Analysts said the actual figure was widely believed to have been lower. Nevertheless, Mr Bouteflika, who served as Algeria's foreign minister from 1963 to 1978, has scored achievements during his nine years so far as president, analysts said. "He's been able to restore Algeria's international presence and reputation, which reflects his history as Algeria's foreign minister, and he's handled the relationship with the US with great skill," said George Joffe, a research fellow at Cambridge University's Centre of International Studies. But there have been setbacks on the domestic front, Mr Joffe said. Despite a plan approved by referendum in 2005 to move past the civil war by offering amnesty to some Islamist militants, a small hard core group of fighters has since allied with al Qa'eda and continues to stage bomb attacks, mainly against government forces. Meanwhile, Algeria'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 are unlikely to be met, Mr Joffe said. For Mr Bouteflika's supporters, such unfinished tasks underline the need for him to continue as president. For months, political allies have urged him to try for a third term, arguing that no other candidate matches his experience and political weight. "Arguably, continuity at the presidential level helps provide stability which is needed if other key problems, especially economic ones, are to be addressed effectively," said Hugh Roberts, an Algeria expert and former North Africa project director for Crisis Group International. Lifting term limits does not directly enhance democracy, Mr Roberts said. "But it strengthens the presidency, which may be a necessary transitional development, making the executive branch of the state more coherent." Analysts said that under a continuing Bouteflika presidency, Algeria would likely continue major foreign policies, including participation in US-led antiterrorism efforts, and in the nascent Mediterranean Union, a community for economic co-operation launched by France in July. Algeria will also continue to support the Polisario Front, an independence movement seeking self-determination for Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony annexed by neighbouring Morocco in 1975, analysts said. How a third Bouteflika term might affect Algeria's political landscape remains to be seen, said analysts. "This could clear the way for a new political generation," said Mr Willis, of Oxford University. "For now, we just don't know." jthorne@thenational.ae