Algeria’s new president faces the country’s biggest political crisis in decades, a hostile economic climate and attacks on his legitimacy after winning an election with low turnout opposed by a massive protest movement.
Abdelmadjid Tebboune beat the other four candidates, all also former senior officials, to win the race outright with 58% of the vote, ensuring there will be no second round.
The authorities hope the election of a new leader will end months of turmoil following the toppling of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, whose 20-year-rule was brought to an end in April when the army pulled its support after mass demonstrations.
But protesters have dismissed the entire election as a ploy by Algeria’s shadowy, military-backed authorities to quell the months-long uprising and restore the old political order.
As housing minister, the 74-year-old Tebboune was responsible for building the tallest mosque in the world, a project the government pushed as a national symbol.
He also expanded the state’s low-cost housing project with a million new apartments.
Officials say 40% of voters took part in the poll, enough to demonstrate the legitimacy of the exercise.
However, protesters and their sympathisers who boycotted the election could dispute Tebboune’s mandate. And, as the protest movement has no clear leadership, it is not clear how Tebboune could negotiate a widely accepted path forward.
Vow to separate money from politics
Aside from the months-long political crisis, he will also face Algeria’s most difficult economic situation in decades, with declining energy revenues and bitter cuts to state spending.
Energy exports, the source of 95% of state revenue, fell 12.5% in 2019. The government has burnt through more than half its foreign reserves since energy prices began dropping in 2014 and has approved a 9% cut in public spending for 2020, while keeping politically sensitive subsidies untouched.
It has also approved new investment rules to allow foreign companies to own majority shares in “non-strategic sectors,” and to make it easier for international oil firms to work with state energy giant Sonatrach.
Tebboune was viewed as a technocrat during his years as a cabinet minister under Bouteflika. He served as premier in 2017 before being pushed out after less than three months when he fell out with influential business tycoons in the president’s coterie, many of whom are now in prison on corruption charges.
Like the other candidates, Tebboune has tried to harness the protest movement as a source of support for reform, while rejecting its overriding message that the entire ruling elite should go and that the military should quit politics.
He has used the circumstances of his brief premiership in 2017 to polish his credentials as a man of integrity who stood up to Bouteflika. He vowed during the campaign to “separate money from politics.”
However, his own son was also arrested in the purge that followed Bouteflika’s fall and is now also awaiting trial accused of graft. Tebboune supporters said his son’s plight proved his independence from the military-backed authorities.