Algeria's bloody past, energy wealth keep status quo for now
ALGIERS (Reuters) - Cramped with his young wife and three infants in a shack in Algiers' Citi Hofra slum, Amin Kerchach could be forgiven for being angry at missing out on Algeria's gas wealth.
But after waiting for years to get a new state-built apartment from President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, his memories of Algeria's bloody past and the promise of state largesse to come are reasons enough to hold out a little longer.
Where frustrations in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria brought the Arab Spring revolts of 2011, in Algeria, stability wins over anger at unemployment and economic torpor in a system critics say is little changed since independence in 1962.
Algerians like Kerchach show why Bouteflika will likely be re-elected on Thursday by those who see him as a symbol of public spending and a guarantee of security in a country where many are still scarred by the Islamist war of the 1990s.
A year after he suffered a stroke, Bouteflika appears to face little challenge for a fourth term after 15 years in power - even if he has rarely spoken in public since the illness that put him in a Paris hospital for three months.
Algeria's conflict, where Islamist extremists massacred villages and more than 200,000 people died, is still a deep trauma for many Algerians, and even a decade later, a memory fresh enough to keep them wary of uncertainty.
"What I saw then, I never want to see again," said Kerchach, a security guard who worked in a morgue in a town hit by Islamist strife. "I am not saying everything is right here. There are problems. Is it enough? No. But it is something."
Bouteflika's allies have been drumming home the memory of the 1990s at every turn during a campaign when the president himself was seen only in brief television appearances with visiting dignitaries, but never at his own rallies.
Thursday's outcome may be a given for many Algerians, but what happens after April 17 is closely watched by Western governments who see Algeria as a partner in the campaign against Islamist militancy in the Maghreb.
How the North African OPEC state manages its stagnant energy production - it supplies a fifth of Europe's gas imports - and the demand for a new bidding round after the election is more vital now with Ukraine's crisis threatening Russian gas supplies.
Observers say Algerian politics has long been managed behind the scenes among rival clans of the Front de Liberation National (FLN) elites and army generals - "Le Pouvoir" or "The power" in French - who see themselves as guardians of stability.
His opponents say the ailing president is too weak to run the country. Several parties have boycotted a system they say is corrupt and tilted in Bouteflika's favor. He won 90 percent of the vote in 2004, and 85 percent in 2009.
With the backing of the FLN, allied parties, unions and the army factions on his side, Bouteflika is expected to get out the vote, and his allies say he is well enough to govern.
But the health of the 77-year-old leader raises questions about Algeria's future, feeding talk of political transition during his fourth term and more infighting among powerbrokers.
"The only objective of the president is to hand peace and security to the country. It is more important than anything," his former premier, Abdelmalek Sellal, told Reuters.
With nearly $200 billion in reserves, Algeria can still spend to ease social tensions as Bouteflika did in 2011 to ward off any Arab Spring style discontent.
Housing shortages, joblessness and political malaise are a combustible mix. But protests and riots in Algeria tend to focus on local community problems.
Algeria increased budget spending by 25 percent in 2011 to concentrate mainly on pay rises for public sector employees, a measure that followed riots over high food prices.
Public spending for 2014 is set to reach $98 billion, 11.3 percent more than last year. Much of that goes on subsidies, which for 2014 increased by $1.35 billion to $22 billion. Basic foodstuffs accounted for 12.8 percent of total expenditure.
One state program, ANSEJ, offers credits to young people to start up businesses as a way to fight youth unemployment.
"If you don't take advantage of ANSEJ it would be stupid," said Mohamed Mekideche who set up a physiotherapy center in Algiers. "I'll be honest, I'm with Bouteflika. He gave me a credit. Though I won't vote for him because he isn't well."
Some question how long such generosity can last. Even the government acknowledges the need for reforms.
The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank say Algeria is vulnerable to a long-term fall in global oil prices.
But Sellal said the government expects oil prices to stay above $75 a barrel for at least the next few years.
"We don't throw away our money. We are aiding our young people," the former premier said. "We will keep doing this in the future, we will keep helping them with start ups."
This year's oil round has shale gas options that may boost output. But companies are wary about costs and security after an attack last year on a gas plant killed 40 workers.
For now, diplomats and analysts expect little change to unless Algeria faces a disastrous combination of political infighting, economic crisis, and a more effective opposition.
"Algerians are not really looking for total change, they are just looking for more of a voice," one diplomat said.
Even a rare public show of frustration over political and economic change illustrates the difficulties Algeria's opposition leadership faces against Bouteflika.
On an Algiers boulevard, dozens of protesters earlier this month staged a sit-in, chanting against Bouteflika's re-election and challenging a ban on protests in Algiers.
Ringed by police and plainclothes security men, the new movement, called Baraket or "Enough" in local dialect, hoisted banners, sang and gave speeches. Commuters walked by, and drivers gawked. One shouted "Long Live the FLN".
After being detained initially, they have more recently been allowed to hold their demonstrations. But their numbers have never got beyond 100 in Algiers.
Opposition leaders say it is time for Bouteflika's generation to move.
But they are divided and lack mass appeal. Younger Algerians dismiss politics, alienated from an older generation of veteran-era leaders who offer little change.
Several parties, including former bitter rivals Islamist MSP and the secular RCD party, have joined forces to call for a boycott in hopes of chipping away at the election's legitimacy.
"This election doesn't give any chance of real change, or for political reform," said MSP leader Abderazak Mokri. "This is an electoral masquerade."
But even the opposition frontrunner, former Bouteflika ally Ali Benflis, acknowledges perceptions of an uphill struggle.
"People told me it was useless to run, they say that the game is already over. They ask me, why take part?" said Benflis. "My answer is this. Is Algeria at peace, is Algeria quiet, is Algeria developed?"
Yet calling for change in Algeria is tricky for Bouteflika's opponents, whom the president has accused of stirring turmoil.
It's a message that goes down well in Kerchach's slum, where many are more interested in a state promise of $60 billion spending on new housing over the next five years.
"Anarchy is not the answer. We know all about confrontation and we experienced that before," Kerchach said. "All we want now are solutions to problems."
(Additional reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed; Editing by Giles Elgood)
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