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Algerian opposition candidate takes on a Goliath in presidential poll

© Assiya Hamza/ FRANCE 24

Text by Assiya HAMZA

Latest update : 2014-04-14

Algerian opposition candidate Ali Benflis may not have the resources to match President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s re-election campaign in the April 17 election, but he has committed volunteers who believe the very future of the country is at stake.

Inside a nondescript building in a suburb of the Algerian capital of Algiers, small groups of volunteers huddle around computer screens and tables stacked with election flyers.

This is the regional campaign headquarters of Ali Benflis, the only serious challenger to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in the April 17 poll.

A former Algerian prime minister and veteran human rights activist, Benflis lost to Bouteflika in the 2004 presidential election amid allegations of electoral fraud.

A decade later, the Algerian opposition candidate has repeatedly said electoral fraud is the “main adversary” in the 2014 election.

It’s a warning that has earned the wrath of his powerful political rival.

At a rare public appearance over the weekend, the ailing, 77-year-old incumbent accused Benflis of fomenting violence.

"When a candidate threatens walis (provisional governors) and tells officials to beware – for their families and children – in case of [electoral] fraud, what does that mean?" asked Bouteflika in a TV appearance on Saturday, before answering: That's "terrorism via the television".

Bouteflika was responding to a statement by Benflis calling on walis not to engage in electoral fraud.

After 15 years in office, Bouteflika is running for a fourth consecutive term following a controversial 2008 constitutional amendment, which scrapped a two-term limit.

A wily, pugnacious politician, Bouteflika is credited with bringing stability to a country ravaged by the brutal 1990s Algerian civil war, which killed around 200,000 people. The longstanding president has the support of Algeria’s powerful military and ruling elites – known as the “pouvoir” – as well as the country’s bureaucracy and trade unions and is widely expected to win the April 17 election.

But that sentiment has no little echo in this building in Ben Aknoun, a suburb north of Algiers.

"In 2004, the situation was different. Now, society has moved one. There is a resistance to a fourth term in office. I believe we will be victorious because the people want change," said Mohamed Allalou, Benflis’ campaign manager and a former Algerian sports and youth minister. "Ali Benflis is running on an open, democratic platform that calls for the respect of human rights and freedom of expression.”

A low-budget campaign

Here in the campaign headquarters of Bouteflika’s main rival, the quintessentially Algerian can-do spirit appears to be fueling the team. Without the backing of a political party, the Ali Benflis 2014 campaign is manned by volunteers and financed by contributions from supporters.

According to the country’s electoral code, the state reimburses 10% of campaign costs incurred by candidates who win between 10 and 20% of the vote.

The Benflis team is pitted against the well-funded, colossal machinery of the Bouteflika campaign, a David v. Goliath battle that the opposition claims is exacerbated by the incumbent’s use of state resources on the campaign trail.

Opposition supporters say Bouteflika campaign events are packed with people brought in on buses paid for by the state. They also note that whole sections of the capital are plastered with the president’s photographs while the other five candidates remain in the shadows. “That’s because the candidate [Bouteflika] is only visible in photographs,” quips Allalou, who was once a top Algerian sportsman, with a smile.

With Bouteflika too ill to campaign following a 2013 stroke, supporters of the president – including Abdelmalek Sellal, a former prime minister who resigned to head the re-election bid – have hit the campaign trail, plugging their candidate.

Sellal and other Bouteflika’s supporters, such as Amar Saadani, general secretary of the ruling FLN (National Liberation Front) party, have maintained that the Algerian people have “asked” the president to stand for reelection.

But Allalou is sceptical about these claims. “Personally, I’ve never seen any demonstrations of people asking Bouteflika to stand for reelection,” he says. “There’s apathy and indifference perhaps, but no call for a fourth term - quite the contrary.”

‘Occupying’ the Internet

On the second floor of the Benflis campaign headquarters, a group of young volunteers huddle in the “communication cell” – a tiny room with walls plastered with paper sheets bearing handwritten charts. The strategy goal in this room is to “occupy” as much of the Internet as possible.

"We have seized the social networks,” explains Tassadit, a volunteer who worked on the Benflis 2004 campaign. “We believe in a monopolising strategy. We don’t hesitate to get in touch with supporters of presidential candidates who have withdrawn from the race. It’s a strategy that works. Some of them even come to visit us here,” she says proudly.

Tassadit’s soft but firm voice commands the space in the tiny, smoke-filled communication cell. Sitting at a table in the middle of the room, she dissects, compiles and verifies documents, including itineraries to help activist attend rallies in provinces across the vast North African nation.

At a corner of the room, Islam and Mohamed pore over a computer screen with a Facebook banner for the campaign. The number two is prominently displayed in the banner since each candidate is assigned a number in a country with a 72% literacy rate.

Faced with the machinery and resources of the Bouteflika campaign – and the fear that the administration will engage in electoral “tricks,” - Allalou hopes his candidate can ride on a wave of civic pride. "There will be a low voter turnout, but I hope there will be a revival of patriotism. A vote against a fourth term [for Bouteflika] is a vote for safeguarding the Republic and saving the country,” says Allalou.

Voter apathy is a huge concern in a country that has been ruled by one political party, the FLN, since independence. “We’re expecting a record abstention rate,” said Mohamed Chafik Mesbah, a veteran Algerian political scientist.

“The turnout will be around 10% at best. Of course, the [official] figures that will be announced will have nothing to do with the reality of the election. The final results have been known since [Bouteflika’s] candidacy announcement. It is so obvious that the refusal of the European Union to send observers for this presidential election gives the government the chance to cheat in isolation,” said Mesbah, referring to the EU’s decision not to send observers since Algerian authorities had not submitted their request on time.

If there are widespread allegations of fraud, Allalou fears the specter of violence, which is already latent in a society that has experienced a brutal civil war. "It's like when you put a tree in a small pot: if the pot is broken, the tree will die.”

 

Date created : 2014-04-14

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