There is absolutely no doubt that Abdelaziz Bouteflika has become synonymous with a long period of relative stability in Algeria. When he came to power in 1999, the country was racked by a murderous civil war between his government and Islamist factions. By the time Bouteflika surpassed Houari Boumédiène as Algeria’s longest-serving president in November 2012, democratic reforms were being implemented, along with economic initiatives which were all contributing to the country’s prosperity. Terrorist outrages continued, but nothing like on the scale of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Notwithstanding the fact that President Bouteflika has not actually said he is going to run for a fourth term, there are plenty of those who think the re-election of the 76-year-old would not be a good thing for Algeria’s democratic experiment. The first objection is a purely practical one—Abdelaziz Bouteflika is clearly not a well man. It was only in July that he flew home to Algiers from a Paris hospital. His exact condition was kept secret, but rumors of his imminent death abounded at the time. There was talk of a “mini-stroke”, but many considered the illness to be far worse, especially after the head of state was seen in a wheelchair as he was escorted on to a presidential jet at Le Bourget Airport, close to the French capital. However, Ammar Saidani, the newly-elected Secretary General of the president’s National Liberation Front (FLN) party, which nominated Bouteflika as their candidate for the 2014 election last Saturday, argued that: “The former US president Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected four times, and he was in a wheelchair.”
Yes, there is a tradition of elderly statesmen remaining great democratic leaders. William Gladstone was Prime Minister of Great Britain until he was 84, while Winston Churchill was 80 when he left the same post in 1955. Charles de Gaulle was 78 when he stepped down as President of France for the last time in 1969.
Yet the modern world is becoming a far more demanding place, with the workload of any head of state growing every day. New technology, especially in the field of communications, means they have to be ready to respond to challenges 24/7, and often practically instantly. The pace of the decision-making process is relentless, and only the fittest and most dedicated are likely to succeed.
Whatever anybody’s view of Bouteflika’s policies, he is also irrevocably associated with a different time and a different age. He joined Algeria’s Army of National Liberation as a teenager, and is now part of a fast-ageing generation who led their country’s successful struggle against the French in the 1950s and early 1960s. Such men and women are revered for many good reasons, but that does not automatically qualify them to preside over Algeria’s development in 2014.
Algeria has been run with great secrecy, and indeed frequent repression under Bouteflika. Many believe this has been inevitable given the country’s bloody recent history, and indeed one of the reasons why there was no significant rebellion during the Arab Spring of 2011. A vast and well-equipped army, combined with ruthless security services, makes violent dissent extremely unattractive to protesters. Anything which avoids the bloodshed witnessed in neighboring Libya, and indeed countries like Syria and Egypt, is to be welcomed by those who favor democratic progress over violent revolution.
However, for change to happen, Algeria must let a new, young, accountable and dynamic generation of politicians to emerge. Allowing Bouteflika to linger in power for a fourth term would be a serious impediment to positive advancement.
It was Bouteflika who, last year, announced a “reinforcement of representative democracy,” as a state of emergency imposed 19 years earlier was lifted. Bouteflika approved the creation of 23 new parties, making a total of 44, all of which, technically at least, had a fair shot at power. Some 43 percent of Algeria’s 37 million people took part in the 2012 parliamentary elections aimed at bringing about gradual change. However, there were immediate accusations of vote-rigging. Critics pointed to a suspiciously high turnout in the sparsely populated south while, nationwide, only 10 million of the 22 million eligible voters showed up.
Certainly, few expressed surprise when Bouteflika’s governing National Liberation Front won the election, but the fact that it took place at all shows there is an appetite for democratic change, and that it has every chance of happening. Many Algerians point to the highest number of women ever in the Algiers parliament with a system of quotas leading to 145 taking up seats. Bouteflika has played his part in such welcome progress, but he now has a duty to his fellow citizens to hand over the reins of power to colleagues who are younger, fitter and more in touch with an increasingly interlinked world.