Algeria: Impasse over president's plans muddies 2019 race

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A former Algerian prime minister says a leadership vacuum and uncertainty over whether the North African nation's ailing president will seek a fifth term has created a political impasse a year before the next election.

Ali Benflis, who has sought Algeria's presidency twice before, is part of an opposition that wants firm democratic guarantees if President Abdelaziz Bouteflika decides to run again after 19 years in office.

But like other potential candidates, the former prime minister so far has refused to commit to running. The electoral situation is so opaque in Algeria, a Muslim country that is a Western ally in the war on extremism, they don't know who their main rival would be, making it hard to plot a win.

"Our country is in a multidimensional crisis, but (it's) essentially political since there is a vacuum at the top of the state hierarchy," Benflis, a former ally of the president's, said in an interview with The Associated Press. "There no longer is legitimacy."

First elected in 1999, Bouteflika is Algeria's longest serving leader since the former French colony won independence in 1962. The 81-year-old president, who rarely has been seen in public since he was partially paralyzed by a stroke five years ago, has not said if he plans to run in the May 2019 election or designated a favored successor.

A constitutional change in 2008 removed term limits and opened the way for him to become president for life. A 2016 amendment reversed the move, limiting presidents to two terms. Since the two-term limit was not applied retroactively, Bouteflika can seek re-election one more time.

Another unknown is who is running Algeria right now: Bouteflika, his brother Said Bouteflika or the powerbrokers that long have been an essential component of the country's obscure governing structure. Also unclear is what role, if any, a coterie of army generals that in the past chose the winning presidential candidates from their own ranks might play going forward.

Benflis, 73, an influential lawyer and justice minister in a previous government, was Bouteflika's campaign director in 1999 and was named prime minister in 2000. Then something broke. He quit as prime minister in 2003 and unsuccessfully challenged the man he once supported in 2004 and again in 2014 — like others crying fraud at election results. He formed his own party in 2015, Talaie El Houriat, Arabic for Vanguard of Freedoms.

The lack of clarity over Bouteflika's plans has so paralyzed politics that no one has declared an intention to run for president. While some have proposed uniting by a single opposition candidate as a way forward, Benflis thinks that strategy would fail.

"That would be the reappointment of the same system," said Benflis. "The presidential election will resolve nothing."

Tackling Algeria's political, economic and social crises with structural reforms that create a climate attractive to investment, "that's the priority for us, and not the presidential election," Benflis said.

While rich in natural gas and oil, Algeria's economy has been hard-hit by the global drop in oil prices, forcing limits on government subsidies to the population that helped maintain calm when the Arab Spring was triggered in neighboring Tunisia.

Another priority, he said, is ensuring that elections are organized by a "truly independent and autonomous commission."

"The current commission called 'high' and 'independent' is neither high nor independent. It's an appendage of power and the Interior Ministry," Benflis said of the electoral commission whose members, judges and politicians, are designated by the president.

He also called for the establishment of a "political pact" between authorities and politicians of all stripes to support a democratic transition that could be overseen by the army — the "backbone of the Algerian state."

Members of Bouteflika's entourage refuse to discuss Benflis and accuse him of betraying the president.

Democratic institutions and regularly scheduled elections show that "Algeria has definitively turned the page on transitions" of power under Bouteflika and that the Algerian army has "no political role to play," Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia recently said.

Last fall, Ouyahia was among two officials who said the president had decided to seek another mandate. However, Bouteflika muddied the waters in a message on March 19, the Victory Day that marks the end of Algeria's seven-year war for independence, saying the country "needs political diversity ... and competition for power."

Like others, Benflis cannot read between the lines of the president's message, saying only that if the ailing president seeks a fifth term, "it will be a leap into the unknown."