Algerians have yet to vote, but the country's long-time strongman, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, is projected to win an unprecedented fourth term as President on April 17. With Bouteflika's support from both the State apparatus and the Military, any other outcome is highly unlikely. What is unusual about this scenario is that Bouteflika can barely speak. The 77-year-old war veteran suffered a stroke last year and disappeared to France for a mysterious three-month hospital stay. He is rarely seen in public, typically only through pre-recorded videos, and the country's Prime Minister even had to announce Bouteflika's presidential candidacy because of the President's incapacitation.
Algerians deeply fear a rise to power by the Islamists and the country plunging into another civil war. Bouteflika's ability to stabilize the country in the midst of a decade-long Islamist-insurgency that claimed nearly 150,000 Algerian lives has secured his more than 15 years of power. However, the President's weakened state and the absence of political and economic reforms have created an environment in which Algeria could fall prey to extremists looking to take advantage of an unstable system. Despite the country's vast oil wealth, youth unemployment remains astonishingly high at around 24 percent. If Algeria is not opened-up to moderate multiparty democracy and the free-market system, it will become a breeding ground for religious extremism. Algeria needs political change, and it needs it quickly.
The winds of the Arab Spring and a generation of unemployed youths are starting to change the Algerian political dynamic. Bouteflika may have the backing of the State, but if he fails to enact long-promised reforms, there will be a deep loss of confidence by the Algerian people. An urban middle-class youth movement known as "Barakat!", meaning "enough", has recently sprung up in Algiers. The protest movement might be small, but the region's autocrats have underestimated such movements in recent years and those miscalculations have been costly. While protest movements often struggle to gain traction in a country as tightly controlled as Algeria, when -- not if -- Bouteflika takes office after Thursday's polls, reform should be the top of his agenda.
Algerians learned from their own violent struggle against Islamist extremists and want to avoid a return to armed conflict at any cost. But discounting peaceful multiparty democracy by lumping violent Islamists and secular political reformers into the same category for the sake of security fundamentally undermines a stable and prosperous Algeria. For the first time, former Algerian ministers and members of the political elite spoke out against Bouteflika running for a fourth term, even calling for Algerians to boycott the election. They are claiming younger and more vibrant leadership is needed to bring Algeria into the post-Arab Spring era. While they might not get a more youthful leader in this election cycle, pressure should remain on Bouteflika to implement the democratic reforms on which he has been campaigning for the last month. The political elite and the Algerian citizenry should hold him to account.
Algeria's military plays a significant role in regional security. It is significantly better funded and better trained than the other forces in the region but its security role should not be overplayed. Algeria's military continues to undermine regional relations with its rival, Morocco, it has been unhelpful by meddling in Northern Mali which undermined France's security efforts, and it has been slow to secure their border with Tunisia. While Algeria is an important partner for the U.S. and Europe and stability is extremely important in a highly volatile region, giving Bouteflika a pass and ignoring the underlying challenges in the country such economic and political reform comes at a high cost.
What happens in Algeria after April 17 matters a great deal to Western governments. Algeria is a critical partner for many Western governments given its vast oil and gas reserves. Global political dynamics rank energy security at the top of many European leaders' minds. Bouteflika's health is poor, and the instability that is likely to ensue upon his passing should be a real concern not only to the region, but also to Western governments.
It's time to start thinking about April 18 as well as a post-Bouteflika Algeria. Western governments should not focus solely on Bouteflika and the military, but on the development of democratic-minded opposition leaders, civil society groups, and the next generation of political leadership. If these individuals are not empowered and the military is unable to manage the post-Bouteflika era, the Islamists will return the country to violent conflict. Helping to shape an environment conducive to moderate multi-party democracy in the long-run will ensure a stable and prosperous Algeria. The U.S., U.K., and the E.U. should apply pressure on Bouteflika to implement his long-promised reforms in a responsible and legitimate manner.
Algerians deserve a better future; Western governments can help support that vision.
Follow Charlotte Florance on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CMFlorance