AFP- Algerians will vote in a presidential election Thursday with Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has ruled the oil-rich North African nation for 15 years, the firm favourite for re-election despite chronic health problems.
The 77-year-old president has been conspicuous by his absence from the campaign trail, looking frail on the rare occasions he has appeared in public since suffering a mini-stroke last year, with a team of high-profile allies instead making his case.
Despite rehabilitation treatment and assurances from former premier Abdelmalek Sellal, who is spearheading the campaign, that he is “improving day by day”, many doubt whether Bouteflika is fit to continue for another five years.
Youth protest group Barakat (Enough) was founded just two months ago specifically to oppose the president’s fourth-term bid, while a coalition of opposition parties, including the Islamist Movement for the Society of Peace (MSP) is calling for a boycott.
A number of rallies have been disrupted in the past week, some of them by Berber protesters calling on Algerians to reject the vote.
The election is also taking place amid unanswered questions about the position of the powerful army, in a country whose secretive military elite are often considered the real decision makers, and with signs that its leaders are sharply divided.
The head of the DRS military intelligence agency, General Mohamed “Tewfik” Mediene, who has been a powerful hidden force in Algerian politics for years, is thought to oppose a fourth Bouteflika term.
But army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah remains one of the ailing president’s key allies, and “is taking flack from former high-ranking officers” for steadfastly supporting his re-election bid, the independent daily El Watan commented on Friday.
In February, a retired senior general urged Bouteflika to step down “with dignity,” saying in an interview with El Watan that he was speaking on behalf of others in the armed forces, “because we cannot let this situation continue.”
Despite the often scathing criticism levelled against him in the independent media, Bouteflika remains popular with many Algerians, especially for helping to end the devastating civil war in the 1990s.
Some 23 million Algerians are eligible to choose on Thursday between six candidates.
Bouteflika’s main rival, ex-prime minister Ali Benfis, is seeking to reverse his fortunes following ten years in the political wilderness, after running against, and losing heavily to his former ally in the 2004 presidential elections.
On Thursday in the eastern city of Bejaia, he predicted a “violent earthquake that will shake the foundations of those who support a president for life.”
Benflis has repeatedly warned against electoral fraud, which he calls his “main adversary,” and which he says defeated democracy in the 2004 election.
While the presidential hopeful jets around the country trying to whip up support, Bouteflika remains unseen, appearing just once during the campaign when he met visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry, with television images showing him seated and barely audible.
Seven close allies were picked to represent him at election rallies, and have emphasised the stability Algeria has enjoyed during his three-term tenure, following the “black decade” of civil war.
Bouteflika’s policy of national reconcilliation, in which he offered an amnesty for rebels who laid down their weapons and renounce armed struggle, saw thousands released from prison and led to a sharp decrease in violence.
A striking reminder of the dangers facing Algeria came in January 2013 when jihadists stormed the In Amenas desert gas plant. Dozens of foreign hostages were killed in the bloody four-day siege and army operation that followed, which also shattered the security image associated with the country’s vital energy sector.
Algeria remains vulnerable to further attacks, given its vast desert borders with Libya and Mali, countries plagued by militant Islamist groups since the Arab Spring uprisings toppled dictators across the region.
Bouteflika’s supporters also praise him for containing the social unrest that spread to Algeria in January 2011 as mass protests gripped neighbouring Tunisia, by offering political reforms, lifting a 19-year state of emergency and raising wages.
But discontent remains a real threat, experts say, amid high youth unemployment and poor living conditions for many Algerians, despite the country’s windfall hydrocarbon revenues.