Bouteflika wins option to run for third mandate

The Algerian parliament has approved the lifting of presidential term limits, a move that opens the way for 71-year-old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to run for a new term in the April 2009 election.


Algeria’s political regime just changed. By adopting a new revision of the 1996 Constitution on Wednesday, Nov. 12 , the Algerian Parliament paved the way for presidency for life for Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was until now limited to two mandates. They also concentrated powers in his hands.


As of now, the job of head of government will be replaced with that of prime minister, although he won’t necessarily belong to the Parliamentary majority. The prime minister will be in charge of executing the head of state's programme, which means that the role of parliament will be reduced to that of a recording chamber.


“Before this reform, the government came from the parliamentary majority and would execute its programme,” explains Farid Alilat, a Paris-based Algerian journalist. “Now the Prime Minister has to execute the progamme of the elected president, parliament has no power left.”


“Bouteflika brings us into alignement with Arab dictatorships”


It’s a bitter outcome for El Watan journalist Fayçal Métaoui as well. “Algeria suffers from democratic regression,” he said, adding that the gains from Spring 1988 – that led to the end of one-party rule – come out looking weaker.


To Bouteflika opponents, the lifting of the cap on presidential mandates means an end to political diversity. Mohamed Benchicou, the former director of Le Matin newspaper, who has been suspended for political reasons since 2004, is one of them. “It’s a 50-year setback,” he says. “By establishing a life presidency, Bouteflika just brought us in alignment with Arab dictatorships.”


With this constitutional reform, Bouteflika joins the group of African heads of state who refuse to surrender power and have been holding on to it by lifting the constitutional cap on presidential mandates. Among them are Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali (Tunisia), Idriss Déby (Chad), Paul Biya (Cameroon) or Omar Bongo (Gabon).


Bouteflika was elected for the first time in 1999, then reelected in 2004 but he never said anything about the possibility to run again in April 2009. His supporters are urging him to declare his candidacy and his opponents have little doubt that he will do so.


Rather than holding a referendum, Bouteflika went through Parliament, whose majority he knew he could count on, to pass his constitutional reform. Indeed, Parliament adopted the bill by show of hands - and without debate - by 500 votes against 21.


“Algerians have lost interest in politics”


The ailing 71-year-old Bouteflika probably didn’t want to campaign for a referendum in which voters’ participation was far from assured. “Algerians have lost interest in politics,” says Alilat. “They are convinced that political officials aren’t there to improve their quality of life. At the last presidential elections, the abstention rate hit a record 64%. And these are official figures.”


Except for the opposition, the Algerian people haven’t reacted much to the news. Saïd Saadi from the United Front for Culture and Democracy, was among he few voices who denounced a “constitutional putsch”. “For the average Algerian, these political shenanigans are a distant reality,” says Zyad Limam, director of Afrique Magazine. “President Bouteflika is stability by default. We don’t know who else in the opposition could replace him. There’s a bit of fatalism in the Algerian people who care more about the country’s economic state than about the constitutional change.”


Pierre Vermeren, a historian specialized in Maghreb societies, goes further. Algeria is at the end of a political process, he says. “The generation of Independence is still in power and with this reform, the current regime just delayed  an irresistible evolution for five years.”

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