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The Algerian Presidential Elections: The Burlesque, the Tragicomic and the Farcical

27/03/2014 10:30 GMT | Updated 26/05/2014 10:59 BST

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Algeria's next Presidential elections will be held on 17th April 2014 and for the last few months; this important electoral rendezvous showed all the hallmarks of a masquerade, consistent with almost all the elections in the history of the Algerian state since independence in 1962.

Elections in Algeria are not particularly known to be free, fair or transparent. They are often rigged, biased and outcomes are usually decided before the voting has begun, by the different factions of the regime and the associated interests groups.

When I think of these particular elections, the Algerian hilarious comedy Carnaval Fi Dashra (Carnival in a Village, released in 1994) comes to mind, where the main character Makhlouf Bombardier, after becoming a mayor with the help of a shady entourage and an extravagant campaign, tries to organise an international film festival that will rival with the Tunisian Carthage edition. He gets involved in corruption and embezzlement but that does not halt his ambition to run for the presidency of the republic.

This comedy is not only an entertaining show but also a satirical critique of the Algerian politics. It conveys in a very funny way what Algerians have come to think of the elections and how deeply alienated with the political system they have become.

The run up to the April-2014 Presidential elections has not failed so far in delivering some episodes or scenes worthy of a Hollywood movie or a tragicomic circus farce.

Amongst the candidates running for these elections, some Franco-Algerian contenders (who had to renounce their French citizenship) stand out, not by their exemplary patriotism and integrity (which I am not questioning here) but by the fact they did not live in Algeria at all, which makes it really difficult to take them seriously. Their ambition and willingness to serve their country of origin is of course to be saluted but surely they did not embark on such plans with the illusion of winning. But who can blame them anyway for seeing these elections as an opportunity or a stepping-stone to integrate the Algerian political system?

One of them; Kamal Benkoussa, a trader and a partner in an American hedge fund in London; and who adopted Obama's "Yes We Can" slogan for his campaign, finally decided to withdraw from the electoral race at the end of February, after realising that the game is closed and rigged in advance. He chose the famous El-Alia cemetery in Algiers to make his announcement, a well-chosen place for a deathbed of a presidential dream.

The other Franco-Algerian candidate is Rachid Nekkaz, a businessman who shot to fame after being a contender for the 2007 French Presidential elections. For the last few weeks, he has been entertaining audiences with his humorous, not to say clumsy interviews on Algerian TV channels. The mystery ingredient is not absent in the mix either: what happened with the strange disappearance of the signatures he accumulated to validate his candidacy with the constitutional council seems to come straight off a spy or a conspiracy novel. He goes then and mobilise hundreds of people in a surprise protest in Algiers on 8th March that was not repressed at all, unlike all the protests organised by the anti-system Barakat (Enough!) movement who could not mobilise similar numbers and whose members were arrested several times.

An Incapacitated President-Candidate

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Algerian President Bouteflika after returning from Paris in July 2013, following his three months hospitalisation. © MAXPPP

What makes the unfolding tragicomedy more burlesque and sad at the same time is the candidacy of a physically unfit president for a fourth term, a 77-year old man who is still struggling to recover from a stroke that resulted in his hospitalisation in Paris for almost three months. He also spent some convalescence time to recover and regain his functional abilities in Les "Invalides" institution. Invalides in French means disabled, a status that currently suits him very well as his rare TV appearances failed to dissipate the serious concerns about his ability to run the country and only confirmed his severe state of illness. In fact these choreographed TV appearances made him a laughingstock of French TV programs.

A well-deserved treatment to say the least of a president who did not address the nation for more than 22 months, who is reduced to a picture-candidate, a megalomaniac who changed the constitution in 2008 to allow for an unlimited number of terms, probably in order to die in office and earn himself the quintessential privilege of a state funeral.

Among the six validated candidates apart from Bouteflika, Ali Benflis, a former prime-minister under Bouteflika (2000-2003) and the unlucky rival in the 2004 Presidential elections, seems to be the only candidate that might represent a shade of threat to Bouteflika's rule. After a humiliating defeat in 2004, Benflis might be thinking that this is the propitious moment to turn the tables and strike a knockout punch against his old opponent. He might be looking forward to taking his revenge and showing the nation that after ten years of absence from the political scene, he can be the next president. But the odds do not look in his favour for now. It remains to hope that he has a strong heart and he is capable of surviving another setback at the age of 70.

As we say in Algerian parlance, El-Hadj Moussa or Moussa El-Hadj, Bouteflika or Benflis, what's the difference? Both represent some factions within the regime and are backed by certain oligarchic groups. The choice between the two will only prolong the life of the current system. What is needed is a complete rupture with the latter and with its actors who abide by its tyranny.

Electoral Despotism

But beyond the candidates, their qualities and flaws, democracy cannot be reduced to elections, especially when these happen in a despotic framework and when these are used to legitimise the system in place and offer a "democratic" façade for authoritarian practices and the pillaging of the oil rent. This electoral masquerade is another proof that the Algerian regime refuses to democratise despite the upheavals of the Arab uprisings and the lessons that must be learnt from the Western interventions in countries like Libya and Iraq: denying your own people freedom and the right to self-determination will only make you vulnerable to imperialist designs.

People that legitimately challenge this state of affairs are often dubbed agent provocateurs who are seeking to destabilise the country for the benefit of foreign powers. For instance, the former Prime-Minister, the infamous Abdelmalek Sellal, who resigned a few days ago in order to head Bouteflika's campaign, described the people who are opposed to the fourth term as agitators and deserve a worse treatment than the terrorists that attacked the In Amenas gas plant in January 2013. The false stability that this regime is championing is not sustainable in the long run as the social peace is bought with an oil rent that is susceptible to the cyclical changes of market prices and also because the people' patience will run out one day.

Whoever wins Algeria's Next Presidential elections: democracy surely won't be a winner and in the absence of a viable alternative that could mobilise the masses around a liberating societal project, boycotting the elections is an honourable political choice to make.