COLUMN

Where Are You, Bouteflika?

Where Are You, Bouteflika?

There aren’t too many elections in the world where the leading candidate is seldom seen or heard. So, when John Kerry visited Algiers earlier this month, Algerians were grateful to the U.S. secretary of state for providing them a rare sighting of the man who is very likely to win the April 17 presidential election.

Looking sallow and sunken, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika greeted Kerry with a raspy, "Comment allez-vous?" (How are you?). As translators hovered uselessly, America’s famously French-speaking top diplomat responded that he was very well, thank you — and very happy to see Bouteflika.

So were millions of Algerians. YouTube clips of the brief encounter promptly went viral with titles such as, "The surreal dialogue between John Kerry and the Algerian mummy?"

When it comes to surreal elections, it’s hard to top Algeria’s upcoming presidential poll.

The ailing, 77-year-old incumbent is standing for a fourth term in office after 15 years on the job. This was made possible by a 2008 constitutional amendment that scrapped an existing two-term limit and increased the presidential term from four to five years.

A year after that amendment was passed, Bouteflika was elected to his third term with 90.2 percent of the vote and an official participation rate of 74.5 percent — a figure think tanks such as the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace called "far too high to be credible."

And now he’s back for a fourth term.

Except Bouteflika is a shadow of the man he used to be. Last year, his failing health made the headlines — despite the notoriously secretive Algerian state’s attempts to cover-up or airbrush the news. This made for some unwittingly comic moments as Bouteflika was shuffled between Paris hospitals, with journalists relying on medical and airport sources to figure if the president had suffered a "mini" or "full" stroke, was lying comatose or fully recovered, or both, in a hospital bed in Algiers or Paris.

If the 2013 presidential health story turned into an Algerian remake of "Where’s Waldo?" the 2014 campaign season has been a wildlife trail in search of an extinct bird. As Bouteflika’s emissaries — former Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal and other government officials — toured the length and breadth of this vast North African nation, the Algerian leader gazed down on his people from portraits hung from soccer stadiums and campaign podiums. But the candidate himself was rarely seen or heard.

This is perfect spoof material, of course, and Algerians have risen to the challenge, inundating social media sites with a burlesque bonanza of cartoons and gags. These include a popular remix of Belgian singer Stromae’s hit single "Papaoutai" about a boy seeking his absent father ("Papaoutai" is slang for Papa, où es-tu? [Papa, where are you?]). The Algerian version has been modified to "Outai Boutefoutai?" — "Where are you, Bouteflika"?

But the tragicomedy of the 2014 campaign show is the fact that Bouteflika will probably win — if not sweep — the April 17 poll.

By all accounts, Bouteflika is a popular president. At 5 feet 2 inches, the independence-era politician is a giant among statesmen. When he was appointed foreign minister in 1963 after Algeria won its independence from France for instance, the 26-year-old Bouteflika cut a dashing, energetic picture as the world’s youngest foreign minister. More than half-century later, he is credited with bringing stability to a nation shattered by the grotesque violence of the 1990s Algerian civil war.

Stability cannot be overestimated in a country that was born in colonial French torture chambers, from where lessons in brutality were quickly adopted by the nationalist National Liberation Front (FLN) party, which has ruled Algeria since independence.

Only once in independent Algeria’s 52-year history did Bouteflika’s FLN party come close to losing power — to the Islamist FIS (Islamic Salvation Front). That was back in 1992, when the military-backed government promptly moved in to scrap the elections, which in turn triggered a bloodbath that saw Islamists as well as Algerian security forces sometimes disguised as terrorists slay around 200,000 people in an astonishingly brutal conflict dubbed the Dirty War, "La Sale Guerre."

Memories of a blood-soaked past have dampened the Algerian appetite for change and uncertainty. In 2011, the winds of the Arab Spring blew across Africa’s northern rim — and stopped at the Algerian border. Today, Egypt is looking eerily similar to Algeria circa 1992, Tunisian secularists are battling their own Islamists, and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is bruising the al Qaeda threat he helped brew. The moral of the 2011 uprisings is so thoroughly assimilated by the Algerian populace that the weak opposition was reduced to repeating, "We are not Tunisia" during the 2014 campaign.

In a country where the political scene is as moribund as the president, the one bright spark on this year’s campaign trail has been the Barakat (Enough) movement, which was formed barely two months ago to protest Bouteflika’s fourth bid for power.

Comprised mainly of urban, middle-class professionals, Barakat can hardly be called a significant threat to the establishment. The movement’s stated aims are tame, with activists calling for progressive change, including a new constitution that would re-impose presidential term limits.

But that mild agenda was apparently too subversive for Algerian authorities. Security forces clamped down on Barakat demonstrations in Algiers last month under the full view of television cameras, giving the new protest movement an unexpected boost. One particularly powerful image that got picked up by Algeria’s remarkably free media showed activist Louiza Chennoub being gagged by a female police officer while she resisted arrest as not-so-secret plainclothes police, or mukhabarat, in standard-issue leather jackets and dark glasses looked on.

There have been scattered demonstrations across the country — especially in the restive Kabylie region — with demonstrators throwing stones at Sellal’s motorcade as the former prime minister and current Bouteflika campaign manager plugged his no-show presidential candidate.

All this happened just weeks before Secretary Kerry arrived — and you can be sure U.S. embassy staffers in Algiers were carefully taking notes. But we didn’t hear a peep from the visiting U.S. secretary of state, who stuck with a magnificently banal, "We look forward to elections that are transparent and in line with international standards, and the United States will work with the president that the people of Algeria choose in order to bring about the future that Algeria and its neighbors deserve."

Diplo-speak can sometimes be odious, for both the audience and speaker. But Kerry had to stick to his security-above-all brief — because frankly, that’s all the international community cares about.

Algeria is the military giant in the region, and it’s a pretty rough neighborhood. The top brass of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) — as well as its noxious splinter groups — are of predominantly Algerian origins. The remote terrain of the Sahara and Sahel makes it easy for jihadists to cross borders and operate in neighboring Mali, Mauritania, Libya, and Niger. The January 2013 Tigantourine gas facility attack near In Amenas, in which 32 jihadists held 800 people hostage, underscored not just the security threats confronting the region, but also the Algerian scorched-earth counterterror strategy. The West — notably the United States and France — may wince a bit at the means, but they’re happy enough with the results. With a landmass stretching from the Mediterranean to the Sahel, Africa’s geographically largest country is considered just too big to fail.

Security-above-all has long been the French and U.S. positions on Algeria. It wasn’t much of a problem because most Algerians also preferred stability to the horrors of the "black decade" of the 1990s. Except now that there’s a perilously ill incumbent seeking his fourth term in office, it’s looking a little embarrassing.

But that’s the price for stability. The truth is, the pouvoir — the shadowy military-financial "power" that controls the country — has decided on their candidate. The trade unions and bureaucracy have fallen in line and during the campaign season, businessmen have been "invited" to pledge their support for the president — which they do, since they tend to be dependent on public sector contracts in an economy driven by the state-controlled oil and gas sector.

In the lead-up to the 2009 presidential race, a leaked U.S. cable noted that while the incumbent’s challengers "walk and talk like serious candidates, local political cartoonists repeatedly depict Bouteflika’s opponents as ‘hares’ placed in the race to legitimize the election process by giving it the outward appearance of being truly competitive. The hares may dutifully run the course and complete the race … but Bouteflika is expected to cross the finish line far ahead of the pack."

Five years later, the tortoise, much slower now, looks set to win the race again. Among the five other presidential candidates, only Ali Benflis, a former prime minister and 2004 presidential candidate, is considered a serious challenger.

In a rare TV appearance just a day before the end of the 2014 campaign season, an enfeebled Bouteflika displayed sparks of his old, aggressive public personality — minus the famous fist-thumping and finger-wagging. During a meeting with visiting Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel Garcia-Margallo over the weekend, Bouteflika accused his rival, Benflis, of conducting "terrorism via the television."

The Algerian president was referring to the opposition candidate’s warning against electoral fraud. In the 2004, when Benflis lost the presidential poll with a mere 6 percent of the vote to Bouteflika’s 85 percent, the runner-up said electoral fraud had been his "main adversary."

But electoral fraud in Algerian polls is virtually par for the course. Most Algerians expect no less. What really interests them now is not so much whether the tortoise outpaces the hares, but what the winner does once he’s crossed the finish line.

Over the past few years, the Algiers rumor mill has been swirling with reports that the president wants to introduce a U.S.-style vice presidential post. Then, if he croaks on the job, the wags note, power can be smoothly transferred to his successor without the bother — or farce — of the polls.