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Algerians are questioning the president for calling early elections without announcing his own campaign

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — Like many of the elections in more than 50 countries voting this year, Algeria’s upcoming presidential race could be a sleepy affair.

With few viable opposition candidates capable of mounting a serious challenge, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune appeared poised to sail to a perfunctory victory and a second term.

But his March 21 decision to announce elections three months ahead of schedule surprised voters and once again woke the oil-rich North African country’s political parties from deep lethargy.

“Ma fhemna walou” – North African Arabic for “We didn’t understand anything” – has since become popular on platforms such as YouTube and Tiktok. Opposition parties have promised to nominate challenger candidates for the September 7 elections. And all the while, Tebboune himself has not formally announced plans for a second term.

“It is not the right time to answer that question,” he said in a television interview this week. “There is still a program that I am in the middle of.”

His hesitations combined with the new election date have brought a sense of bewilderment to business-as-usual politics, raising questions about what lies ahead for the 78-year-old leader and the military apparatus that backs him.

They did not suppress the explanations offered.

The day after Tebboune’s announcement, state news agency APS described his decision as a “return to normality.” Tebboune himself later explained the reasoning behind the early elections as a “purely technical” matter of planning.

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September, he said on Sunday, is “the appropriate time to hold these elections because it coincides with the end of the summer holidays and the beginning of the new school year for many Algerians inside and outside the country, who will be able to express their votes. ” views.”

Others disagree. Scheduling elections in early fall means the height of the campaign season occurs in August, when many leave their homes and go on vacation or seek respite from the heat.

“Can you imagine Algerians in the middle of an August holiday on the beach or in the mountains going to locations to attend candidate meetings? It’s just surreal!” Newspaper columnist Hakim Merabet told The Associated Press, pointing to the scorching heat that engulfs much of the country and often lasts until October.

Even in the colder months, Algeria has struggled to engage voters disillusioned with politics, including in the 2019 presidential election, where turnout was below 40%.

Whether they come or stay home, the elections will mark the next chapter for Algeria, five years after a nationwide peaceful protest movement forced octogenarians President Abdelaziz Bouteflika resign. For weeks, demonstrators took to the streets demanding an overhaul of the country’s corruption-ridden politics, in which the military has long played a major role.

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After previously announcing plans for a fifth term in office, Bouteflika resigned under pressure from the public and the military. Tebboune came to power later that year in an election boycotted by protesters who feared that holding the vote too early could thwart the opportunity presented by Bouteflika’s ouster.

Tebboune promised to heed the calls of the protests, but banned demonstrations when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. During his tenure, journalists have faced continued persecution and the economic problems faced by many of the country’s 45 million residents have persisted. The government has juggled competing priorities, trying to fight inflation while maintaining the state spending, subsidies and price controls that keep people afloat.

The country is the largest in Africa in terms of area and an important security partner for Western countries. As an OPEC member, the country has long funded much of its government operations and social services with oil and gas revenues.

Although he has not yet officially announced his candidacy, Tebboune has been campaigning informally for months.

The National Liberation Front, with which Tebboune has long been associated, endorsed the early election date and said in a statement this week that it would soon decide whether to support the president or field its own candidate.

Few challengers have emerged to challenge him, but political parties – both Islamist and secular – were animated in response to the September date.

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The Socialist Forces Front, Algeria’s main opposition party, has said they will soon decide how to respond to Tebboune’s announcement, promising to make the election “an opportunity for a great debate.” The Rally for Culture and Democracy, another opposition party, issued a statement on Facebook calling the election a “constitutional power grab” that would enforce a timeline that would cause “the de facto exclusion of society as a whole.”

Islamist parties mostly opted for a softer approach and expressed support for the September 7 date. Four days after Tebboune’s announcement, Abderrazak Makri of the Movement for Society and Peace, a high-profile opposition figure, said at a news conference that he was interested in running, depending on his party’s decision at a planned summit in June.

The only challenger who has announced their candidacy is Zoubida Assoul, a lawyer who has defended political prisoners, joined the 2019 protest movement and heads the Union for Change and Progress party. While many in the movement are skeptical about the possibility of a genuine democratic debate during the election campaign, Assoul has warned against missing a potential opportunity.

“Obstacles should not deter us or serve as a pretext for inaction,” she said at a press conference last month before the September date was announced.

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