President for life: Algeria's Abdelaziz Bouteflika is North Africa's Hugo Chavez, minus the anti-Americanism and anti-poverty programs.
In 1999, toward the end of the Algerian civil war--pitting Islamists against the Algerian military and each other, and claiming 150,000 lives--Abdelaziz Bouteflika ran as the military's choice for the presidency. He was virtually unopposed (a lone challenger withdrew, claiming fraud. In Algeria, the boycott at election time is the establishment's most powerful ally). Bouteflika won and promulgated a civil harmony law that reduced violence.
No problem: Bouteflika is North Africa's Hugo Chavez: What Chavez pulled off last Sunday in Venezuela (abolish term limits for the presidency by popular referendum) Bouteflika got done last November by way of a much easier parliamentary coup, most members of parliament being under his control.
On Feb. 12, Bouteflika, 71, made it official. He would run for a third term. The election is set for April 9.
By today, some 27 candidates had entered the race to challenge Bouteflika. But they're mostly unknown political place-settings, while another batch of would-be candidates are pulling the boycott lever again. In the words of one opposition figure, "this election is a bit like pretending to shake up everything to leave everything in place" ("Cette election c'est un peu de faire semblant de tout bouger pour que tout reste en place.")
One interesting candidate: Louisa Hanoun of the Labor Party (Parti des travailleurs). In 2004 she became the first woman to run for president in Algerian history. She'll be trying again.
What It means to the West
Don't stay up for this one. The outcome on April 9 was pretty much written in the stoning of the constitution when parliament abolished term limits in November. For Algeria, it'll be a more ceremonial reminder of the country's post-colonial authoritarian tradition: Repression by Algerians, as opposed to repression by the French.
For the West, and the United States in particular, the Algerian election should be a reminder of how much American ideals of democratization in the Middle East diverge from actual American policy of sticking with authoritarian strongmen at the expense of democracy.
The Bush administration loved Bouteflika. "These elections," the administration said in a tone-deaf congratulatory message following Bouteflika's reelection in 2004, "represent another step on the road toward democracy in Algeria. The President also congratulates the Algerian people for their dedication to building a democratic political system." The Obama administration hasn't signaled a different direction.
Both administrations may prefer the relative stability of the Bouteflika regime to the alternative: a return to Islamist influence and potential rule: It was the Islamists' near-victory in the 1992 parliamentary elections, which were free and fair, which precipitated the military's intervention and, as a consequence, the bloody civil war.
So goes the Middle East's most favored deal-making, so far as the West is concerned. When it's a choice between repression and western-leaning stability on one hand and democracy and potential Islamization on the other, repression wins every time. The irony: repression is the Islamists' fertilizer. Unlike old strongmen like Bouteflika, ironies don't come with an expiration date.
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