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World

Opinion: Algeria's phantom president

Abdelaziz Bouteflika was re-elected for a fourth term as Algeria's president with 81.53 percent of the vote. But the president is just a puppet controlled by a corrupt political elite, comments DW's Nils Naumann.

Whether he can be Algeria's hope for the future is doubtful. The 77-year-old Abdelaziz Bouteflika had to be pushed into the polling station in a wheelchair. His gaze was empty as he cast his ballot. A stroke in April 2013 has severely weakened Bouteflika, who has served as Algerian president since 1999. He can hardly speak or walk and has been out of the public eye for months. The election campaign essentially took place without him. In his place, ministers and close confidants campaigned for his fourth term in office.

Despite those setbacks, his victory seemed a done deal to many observers even before the ballot. If any trust can be placed in the official figures, then Bouteflika has achieved the dream result: he won 81.53 percent of votes.

In the face of such a wide margin of victory, the allegations of fraud from Bouteflika's rival, Ali Benflis, are hardly surprising. After all, it wouldn't be the first time that the regime boosted the numbers to achieve an appropriate result.

But even if the ballot count hasn't been doctored, Abdelaziz Bouteflika only represents one segment of the Algerian population. Several opposition parties had called for people to boycott the vote: only half of the Algerians entitled to vote even cast a ballot.

An election farce

Bouteflika's reelection has been staged by a corrupt political elite that wants to protect its power and privileges. Members of the National Liberation Front (FLN) have been pulling the strings in Algeria since the country's independence from France in 1962. The party's members hold central positions in the state, the military, the secret services and the economy. They can continue to pursue their interests behind the cover of a phantom president like Bouteflika.

Bouteflika has been sold to the population as a guarantor of stability. When the president came to power in 1999, Algeria had just come out of a civil war with around 150,000 casualties. Bouteflika ensured a peace treaty with the Islamists as well as an amnesty for thousands of fighters. The measures allowed him to calm down the violence.

His supporters argue that without him, Algeria could sink back into chaos. Up until now the regime has managed to survive the wave of revolutions in the region unscathed. And when there were protests in Algeria as well, the government pacified protesters with economic concessions.

Algeria needs change

But playing on people's fears of instability won't work in the long term. Algeria is a young country. Fewer and fewer people even remember the violent civil war. Unemployment continues to be high and people are dissatisfied. Algeria's economy is based almost exclusively on oil and gas exports, and desperately needs to be diversified. Without real change, popular anger about the corrupt and ossified elite currently in power could escalate into a wave of protests.

Even the president himself announced in 2012 that his generation had done enough and that now the younger generation should get their turn. But Bouteflika had to stay, even though this critically ill phantom president is hardly the right man for the upcoming challenges that Algeria is certain to face. Instead of staging his reelection, his backers should have granted the 77-year-old his well-deserved retirement and allowed the country to move forward.

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