Algerian election faces disaffected populace

Boycotting is the main form of protest against that 77-year-old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is expected to win

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The college students playing pick-up soccer along the faded grandeur of Algiers’ sweeping waterfront say they won’t be voting in Thursday’s presidential elections, echoing the sentiments of many young Algerians.

They want jobs and housing when they graduate and lack loyalty to a political system run by an aging man too frail to show up for a single campaign event.

Boycotting is the main form of protest against an election that 77-year-old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is expected to win despite his glaring absence, because powerful institutions of the state are firmly wedded to maintaining Algeria’s status quo. But dissatisfaction is growing in this key energy producer and U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism in the face of a sclerotic political system that does little to include the 80 percent of the population of 37 million under the age of 45.

“After we finish our studies there’s only unemployment and you need connections to get to work,” said Redouane Baba Abdi, as he sat on a bench before the game on the paved esplanade between the Mediterranean Sea and the flaking colonial-era buildings of the Bab el-Oued neighborhood. “Most people don’t want Bouteflika for a fourth term. He’s like the walking dead.”

Bouteflika made no appearances in the three-week election campaign, leaving it to his ministers and close associates to rally interest in his re-election. After a stroke last year that left him speaking and walking with difficulty, he has limited himself to carefully scripted TV appearances with foreign visitors like U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this month.

Bouteflika changed the constitution in 2008 so he could remain president, but a fourth term might be a step too far even for a country that was barely affected by the Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings. Several Bouteflika rallies were canceled after they were disrupted by demonstrations, raising fears that another victory could lead to greater unrest.

A small grass-roots movement called Barakat - “enough” in the Algerian dialect - that has come out against Bouteflika’s fourth term attempted a protest Wednesday on the eve of elections, but were pounced on by police.

Members were dragged from the sidewalk and marched away by police who also scattered bystanders and journalists watching the protest, eliciting shock from the crowds of pedestrians on the busy tree-lined boulevard in downtown Algiers.

While Bouteflika’s rule has been characterized by economic growth thanks to high oil prices and a return to stability after the battles against the Islamists in the 1990s, heavy government spending is running up against dwindling oil reserves and falling prices. The country is still run by the same generation that won the war of independence from France in 1962 and shows little interest in involving others.

“We are in a backward world. It’s the old telling the young to get out of the way,” said Abderrahmane Hadj-Nacer, a former central bank governor and analyst. “The people have been corrupted by the distribution of houses and jobs - productivity has been destroyed.”

In fact, those disaffected young students playing soccer have their education and housing paid for by the government, and they talk about waiting to be given a job rather than going out and finding one. “We have taught our youth to just to stick out their hand,” Hadj-Nacer added.

Stability and the largesse of the state have been the main themes of the campaign by the president’s surrogates, who have warned that perks like free housing could come to an end or civil war could return if the president is not re-elected.

“He brought you from the darkness into the light, that is the miracle of Bouteflika,” Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal roared at the final rally in Algiers Sunday, his voice hoarse from campaigning.

Much of the 5,000-strong crowd at the rally came from public sector companies or unions with ties to the government. Supporters were bused in from across country.

“It is true he’s tired, but his brains still work - he doesn’t need to use his hands,” Akila Kelloud, a union member from the nearby city of Medea, said after the rally.

The country is in a delicate phase. Despite foreign reserves of $200 billion, international financial institutions are sounding alarm bells, describing the economy as overly dependent on oil even as prices are threatening to drop.

Oil and gas make up 95 percent of the country’s exports and 63 percent of the budget revenue but employs only 2 percent of the labor force. Worse, reserves are dwindling and the country’s trade balance is expected to go negative in the face of a massive importation bill.

In a February report, the International Monetary Fund warned that “wide-ranging structural reforms” are needed to reduce unemployment and grow the economy. While heavy state spending has dropped unemployment to less than 10 percent, it is still at 25 percent for young people.

The man who says he can fix this situation is Ali Benflis, a former prime minister and the main opposition candidate among the five running against Bouteflika.

“I offer an alternative, a new project and I want to put the youth into the center of decision-making,” he told The Associated Press.

He described how he visited all 48 provinces in the country and logged more than 100 hours of air travel in the course of the campaign - in contrast to Bouteflika’s inactivity.

Benflis’ challenge is not just to win over the millions who don’t vote, but also to guard against fraud, which local and international observers say often characterize Algerian contests.

“If there is fraud I will not be quiet,” he said. “I will ask the Algerians not to accept a false election.”

Opposition is also appearing in grass-roots organizations like Barakat who have been staging small rallies around the country protesting the Bouteflika’s fourth term and the corruption in the system.

Sid Ali Kouidi Filali, one of the group’s organizers, said the real work is to raise people’s consciousness and make them realize that they can change the system.

“We are trying to re-engage the Algerian people in politics,” he said.

Chafiq Mesbah, a political analyst and former intelligence officer, believes that all these scattered demonstrations - 10,000 of them in 2013, according to police - will slowly increase as the social and economic situation continues to deteriorate.

“I think all these little demonstrations will coalesce into a national movement,” he said, citing the elections as a possible turning point. “It will be the beginning of a process, though the explosion won’t happen immediately after.”