Algeria’s presidential campaign is in trouble. Candidates are struggling to fill rally venues, campaign managers have quit, voters have pelted campaign headquarters with tomatoes and eggs, and the country’s 9-month-old pro-democracy movement calls the whole thing a sham.
The five candidates seeking to replace President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in the Dec. 12 election have failed to captivate a disillusioned public. Bouteflika was pushed out in April after 20 years in power amid an exceptional, peaceful protest movement, and now demonstrators want a wholesale change of political leadership.
Instead, the election is managed by the long-serving power structure. Instead of new faces, two of the candidates are former prime ministers and one is a loyalist of Algeria’s influential army chief.
The Hirak protest movement held their 41st weekly demonstrations Friday, denouncing the presidential election. But for the first time, thousands of pro-government supporters held their own rally at the weekend.
The candidates have tried to convince voters that taking part in the election is the only alternative to chaos, an allusion to the civil war that ravaged Algeria in the 1990s. But that argument falls flat among the protesters, who have been overwhelmingly peaceful, with demonstrators calming each other down and ensuring that no one provokes police. It’s a sharp contrast to the sometimes deadly protests and security crackdowns shaking Iraq, Lebanon and other countries in recent weeks.
Former Prime Minister Ali Benflis, considered a leading candidate, was heckled in Tlemcen, Guelma, Oued Souf, Annaba, while he had to cancel a meeting altogether in Maghnia on Algeria’s western edge.
Candidate Abdelamdjid Tebboune, considered the candidate of army chief Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah, had to cancel his first rally in Algiers because not enough people signed up. His campaign manager also resigned, without explanation. And then one of his leading campaign funders was jailed on corruption charges.
Another candidate, Abdelakder Bengrina, began his campaign on the esplanade of the central post office in Algiers, the emblematic site of the protest movement. He had to interrupt his speech to dive into his car under police cover to escape a crowd of angry demonstrators. The portrait on the balcony of his campaign headquarters has been bombarded with eggs and tomatoes.
Many poster boards around Algiers meant to hold candidates’ portraits remain empty. In other sites, Algerians have covered the portraits with garbage bags and signs reading “candidates of shame.” In some towns of the Kabylie region, protesters have blocked access to campaign offices by piling the entrances with bricks.