Islamist Leader Urges Algeria Presidential Vote Boycott

News article, posted 03.24.2010, from Algeria
The former leader of Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), Abassi Madani, whose party was poised to win parliamentary elections before the army interfered in 1992, called on Tuesday for a boycott of this year's presidential elections.

Madani, who has lived in Qatar since being freed from a 12-year jail term in 2003 and banned from political activity in his home country, said that the April 9 poll, which is also being boycotted by the two main legal opposition parties, served no useful purpose.

"The elections in Algeria are a way to consecrate a rotten reality," the FIS founder said in a statement. "Algeria is on a path from bad to worse with no end. There is no way to end this situation but to change the regime as soon as possible.” "Boycotting the elections is the only legitimate way for the people to express their rejection of the deteriorating situation," Madani added.

Incumbent President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was first elected in 1999 and is now 72, on Monday formally presented his candidacy for re-election. Parliament voted overwhelmingly in November to eliminate a previous two-term limit for president. Algeria's main opposition leaders have said the election is a "done deal" set up in Bouteflika's favor.

Ten other people also submitted their candidacies ahead of a midnight Monday deadline. Algeria's constitutional council is due to announce the official list of candidates within the next 10 days. Madani, who is now in his 80s and in declining health, was convicted by an Algerian military court of undermining state security. His number two Ali Belhadj was also jailed and their party outlawed in a move that sparked a prolonged civil war that has killed at least 150,000 people.

Bouteflika has vowed to "press on with a policy of national reconciliation" that he launched in 2000 and which has enabled the release from jail or the surrender of thousands of Islamist fighters who have laid down their weapons.

In an interview with Reuters, Benjamin Stora, professor of Maghreb history at Paris IX University and one of the world’s leading authorities on Algeria, said some of these Islamists have become wealthy during Bouteflika’s presidency as a result of his “national reconciliation” program. This allowed the president to impose his authority in particular on the top ranks of the army, Stora said.

But militants loyal to the North African arm of al-Qaeda remain active in the country and on Sunday nine members of a private security firm were killed when militants attacked their base in the mountains east of the capital Algiers.

The two biggest challenges for Bouteflika today come from the young, who are desperate for jobs trying to flee the country to France, and from the collapse of oil prices, Stora said. In the upcoming April presidential elections Stora predicts a “hollow victory” for Bouteflika and said it will take a new generation of leaders to bring change to a country where social problems are profound, with 70 percent unemployment among young adults, according to official figures.

Algeria has never had a president serving a long time in office before Bouteflika came. Presidents had been imprisoned (Ben Bella), or died (Boumediene), or been deposed (Chadli) or assassinated (Boudiaf), or given up politics (Zeroual).

“This is the first time we see this sort of continuity at the state level,” Stora said. For this reason, he added, there is a widespread suspicion from Bouteflika’s political opponents, journalists and from intellectuals inside Algeria and in exile that the current president wants to be president-for-life.

“Algerians reject this notion as counter to their revolutionary tradition."