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The emerging front-runners in Algeria’s uncertain election

Four prospective candidates have the organizational support and the name recognition to launch credible campaigns on short notice.

Despite popular pressure for a complete overhaul of Algeria's political system, the army is moving forward with the transition called for under the constitution following President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's resignation. Interim President Abdelkader Bensalah, the speaker of Algeria's upper house of parliament, was sworn in April 9. He has promised elections for July 4. But can the poll even take place in the current climate?

That's the first uncertainty, as the street and army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah find themselves on opposite trajectories for the first time since protests broke out in February. As a result, security services have grown harsher while Gaid Salah has ominously accused some protest leaders of being backed by "foreign hands." Gaid Salah and the ruling class are counting on the lure of elections to divide and weaken protesters' calls for a transition outside the framework of a constitution that keeps the regime in the driver's seat. If Gaid Salah has his way, the advantage will go to politicians close to the regime, many of whom have made no secret of their presidential ambitions, who have the connections and cash to run a campaign.

Four names stand out in the context of a short transition period that hamstrings the emergence of new leaders: former prime minister and two-time Bouteflika challenger, Ali Benflis, who leads the Vanguard of Freedoms party; Abderrazak Makri, president of the Muslim Brotherhood-inspired Movement of Society for Peace; retired Gen. Ali Ghediri, a former top Defense Ministry official; and Abdelaziz Belaid, a doctor who leads the Future Front party.


Ali Benflis, the 'house' candidate

Having twice run unsuccessfully against Bouteflika in 2004 and 2014, Benflis is often accused of having acted — consciously or not — to legitimize a process whose outcome was preordained. A product of the system, he could be a natural choice to take back control after the tsunami of popular protests. Despite his current image as a Bouteflika challenger, Benflis ran the former president's campaign in 1999 and served as his prime minister until 2003, while serving as secretary-general of the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) from 2001 to 2004.

At 75, Benflis is hardly the candidate of the rebelling youth, but he's perfectly acceptable to the regime and was quick to rally to the army's agenda. Last week, he called for a "quick return to elections," prompting criticism that he was already dreaming of entering the presidential palace "on the back of a tank." Even as he supports Gaid Salah, Benflis has been cautious not to anger the street. During an April 11 television appearance, he insisted that the political crisis could only be resolved through application of Articles 7 and 8 of the constitution, which hold that the people are the source of all political power. Benflis is a regular on regime-controlled television, which has promoted him as a friendly candidate who can give the system a much needed face-lift.

But what makes Benflis appealing to the ruling class is exactly what turns many voters off. His three years as head of government were marked by high-profile scandals, including the distribution of opaque licenses to foreign communications firms, the collapse of the Khalifa financial empire and, worst of all, the brutal repression of Berber activists during the Black Spring of 2001 that killed 127 people. Benflis was also the one to announce the ban on protests in Algiers in 2001 — a prohibition that was only challenged with this year's protests that took down Bouteflika.

Abderrezak Makri, the striving 'brother'

In retrospect, the Islamist Movement of Society for Peace (MSP) made a wise choice when it ditched the Bouteflika-allied Boudjerra Soltani for Abderrezak Makri in 2013. Soltani's cozy ties with the presidential clan had sparked a revolt by party leaders upset at the MSP's loss of political identity. Makri had been a sharp critic of the regime and has transformed the MSP into a serious opposition party since taking over.

A 58-year-old doctor by training with a law degree, Makri has a strong electoral base. Yet the base is plagued by a high abstention rate in a country whose elections have long lacked credibility. Makri has been a fixture at the weekly protests since February, consistently denouncing the regime's "obstinacy in ignoring the Algerian people's demands." Makri has called Bensalah's installment as interim president a “provocation” and a "humiliation for the Algerian people." 

He would be the only candidate with a natural electoral base independent of the ruling class. However, he faces a formidable challenge from a military-security establishment that is unflinchingly hostile to even moderate Islamist parties following the civil war of the 1990s.

Ali Ghediri, a soldier in the arena

Ali Ghediri, a 65-year-old retired general, is a new face on the political scene. His media presence, which only dates to the past year, has paradoxically been boosted by Gaid Salah's open hostility to his demands. A former human resources director at the Algerian Defense Ministry, Ghediri made a name for himself with open letters to the army chief of staff late last year, calling on the military to "assume its responsibilities" and block Bouteflika's bid for a fifth term.

Ghediri had announced his candidacy in the postponed April elections as the champion of a "profound overhaul of the system" to allow Algeria to "achieve the modernity desired by its people." The protest movement, which does not hold him in high regard, has not changed his mind: He is the first declared candidate for the July elections, which he has called a solution to the Algerian political crisis. In a small concession to the protesters, he has called on authorities to "respond to popular demand to replace transition officials" and demanded that the army commit to guaranteeing a "free and transparent election."

Abdelaziz Belaid, the outsider

If the regime wants to appeal to younger voters after the uprising against the 82-year-old Bouteflika, it couldn't find a better candidate than Abdelaziz Belaid, a 55-year-old doctor by training who has been involved with the ruling FLN since he was 23. A former secretary-general of the National Union of Young Algerians, the party's youth wing, he was twice elected deputy, in 1997 and 2007, before leaving the FLN to form his own party, the Future Front, in 2012. Belaid has surrounded himself with university graduates as an "outsider" who the regime nevertheless thinks it can put in power, without risk, if need be.

Belaid is one of the few Algerian politicians unconditionally in favor of the electoral process. He backed the army chief of staff's April 2 call for Bouteflika to step down, even as lawmakers in his political party opposed Bensalah's interim presidency. Today, all signs point to Belaid following in Ghediri's footsteps and announcing his candidacy for the July 4 election.

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