Algeria stalled 40 days into president’s absence

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Forty days after Algeria's president was hospitalized, the country is stuck in limbo with its normally predictable politics thrown into disarray.

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's absence during a key visit by the powerful Turkish premier has reignited questions over his health and the future of Africa's largest nation. Laws remain unpassed, important reforms unimplemented and succession murky as he convalesces in a French hospital.

The rampant speculation over the condition of Bouteflika, who had a “mini-stroke” April 27 and disappeared to Paris for treatment, had been subsiding in recent weeks until newspapers close to top officials hinted the president would be appearing for the landmark Turkish visit.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived Tuesday and left Wednesday and Bouteflika was once again nowhere to be seen, reviving the question whether the ailing 76-year-old would even finish his current term - much less run for a fourth as had been widely expected.

Though Algeria is ostensibly a multi-party democracy with regular elections, power is held closely in the hands of the president and certain generals and in Bouteflika's absence, the machinery of government has ground to a halt.

“The system depends in many ways on the man on the top and when he's not there it doesn't function with the same efficiency and confidence so a lot of things in Algeria are on hold until his return,” said William Lawrence, the North Africa analyst for the International Crisis Group.

All new laws must be discussed and amended by the president's cabinet before they are inevitably approved by the national assembly, but the cabinet hasn't met since December.

The supplementary budget law has usually been approved by now and set to go into effect July 5, but it remains frozen.

The new audiovisual law, a key part of the much-trumpeted reform of the media that will allow private television stations to operate, is also in hiatus.

A commission was set up in March to amend the constitution ahead of April 2014 presidential elections - another reform promise stemming from the Arab Spring - but it too has stopped meeting.

The reason for the president's continuing absence and dearth of information aside from bland statements about his continuing vigor is that he is in a very serious condition, said Chafiq Mesbah, a retired colonel from the intelligence service turned analyst.

“I have information from high level French officials that President Bouteflika will not be resuming his activities, even if he returns to the country,” he told The Associated Press.

In light of such dire predictions about his health that have already appeared in the French press, there has been a growing clamor from Algerian opposition politicians for the implementation of Article 88 of the constitution relieving a president of his duties for health reasons.

Don't expect any quick legal fixes to this impasse, however, asserted Mokrane Ait Larbi, a constitutional lawyer and political analyst, who expressed doubt that the necessary constitutional measures would be taken.

“Don't forget that Tayeb Belaiz, the president of the Constitutional Council, is a personal friend of the president and I'm certain he will never convene it,” he said. “The situation could continue for a long time.”

Time may not be a luxury that Algeria has. Up until now, the oil- and gas-rich nation has cushioned itself from the turmoil brought on by the Arab Spring elsewhere in North Africa with promises of reform and the generous spending on salaries and projects.

Unrest and demands for jobs and housing have continued to bubble under the surface, however, and the gradual fall of the global price of oil doesn't bode well for Algeria's policy of buying the social peace.

The Algerian system has long been marked by adopting any change at a very gradual pace and the generation that founded the state after it won its independence from France in 1962 still runs the show.

Bouteflika had been expected to run for another term in the 2014 elections and then step down after a few years in favor of a candidate agreed on by the elites, but now the timetable for succession has been moved up.

“The system can still handle his absence for a while to give time for the different clans to agree on another person to succeed Bouteflika,” said analyst Mohammed Saidj. “Psychologically the Algerians are already thinking post-Bouteflika.”

By all accounts, however, consensus on a new leader is still far away and the main ruling parties are wracked by internal divisions of their own.

According to Lawrence the system should be fine for a while, but the time is running out.

“All systems know how to operate on autopilot for a certain period of time,” he said. “Most systems, including Algeria, will come under strain if this goes on for more than two or three months, at this point you would need decisions to be made by Bouteflika or by his staff or someone needs to step into the void.”

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