U.S. singer-songwriter Pharrell Williams’ upbeat song “Happy” has become an anthem for the optimistic. But not in Algeria.
On the eve of a national ballot widely expected to return aging President Abdelaziz Bouteflika for another term, the hit has been given a new life as a sardonic parody in which Algerian voters are urged to boycott the vote. Circulated on social media, the reworked song highlights growing resentment by the country’s youth for the ruling government's perceived failed economic policies.
The "Happy" cover sparked hashtag #HappyDayAlgeria and another YouTube video in which young Algerians support a boycott of the nation’s electoral process, which is already facing allegations of fraud.
Algerian youth say they want jobs and housing when they graduate school, and lack loyalty to a political system run by an aging man too frail to host a single campaign event.
Boycotting is the main form of protest against an election that 77-year-old Bouteflika, leader of the National Liberation Front (FLN) that liberated Algeria from French colonial rule in 1962, is expected to win. State institutions are perceived to be firmly wedded to maintaining the status quo, and memories of the FLN’s hard-earned victory over the French still dominate national consciousness.
But dissatisfaction within Algeria, a key energy producer and U.S. ally in the war on terrorism, is growing — especially among the country’s 37 million people under the age of 45 who are increasingly finding themselves politically and economically disenfranchised.
"After we finish our studies, there's only unemployment, and you need connections to get to work," one young Algerian, Redouane Baba Abdi, told The Associated Press. "Most people don't want Bouteflika for a fourth term. He's like the walking dead."
Bouteflika made no appearances in the three-week election campaign, leaving it to his ministers and close associates to rally support for his re-election. After a stroke last year that left him speaking and walking with difficulty, he has limited himself to carefully scripted TV appearances like the one staged earlier this month with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
Bouteflika changed the constitution in 2008 so he could remain president, but a fourth term might be a step too far even for a country that was barely affected by the pro-democracy Arab Spring uprisings that swept the region in 2011.
Leading up to Thursday’s election, several Bouteflika rallies were canceled due to disruptions by demonstrators, raising fears that another FLN victory could bring greater unrest.
While Bouteflika's rule has been characterized by economic growth thanks to high oil prices and a return to stability after unrest in the 1990s, heavy government spending is running up against dwindling oil reserves and falling prices. Furthermore, the government is still run by the same generation that won its war of independence from France in 1962 and shows little interest in involving others.
The country’s opposition say they are being sidelined.
Soufiane Djilali, head of Jil Jadid (New Generation party), canceled his bid for the presidency on Feb. 28 after Bouteflika announced that he would run for a fourth term. The party believes that the incumbent’s candidacy in itself prevents a truly free and fair election taking place.
Smaïl Saïdani, Jil Jadid party secretary, told Al Jazeera that if Bouteflika wins, it would indicate fraud in the elections. Abderrazak Makri, head of Islamist party the Movement for the Society of Peace (MSP), expressed a similar sentiment in independent Algerian newspaper El Watan.
“Without fraud, Bouteflika won’t win,” Makri told El Watan. MSP does not plan on fielding a candidate in Thursday’s election.
“Bouteflika isn’t the symbol of the FLN. We didn’t see him during the revolution,” Saidani said, adding that “the FLN has been done since 1962. They were about liberating the people. That was their task.”
Algerian economists recognize that a dearth of opportunities for Algerian youth mean that whether Bouteflika wins or not, the incoming president will face a large population of discontented young people.
"We are in a backward world. It's the old telling the young to get out of the way," said Abderrahmane Hadj-Nacer, a former central bank governor. "The people have been corrupted by the distribution of houses and jobs — productivity has been destroyed."
"We have taught our youth to just to stick out their hand," Hadj-Nacer added.
Stability and the largesse of the state have been the main themes of the campaign by the president's surrogates, who have warned that perks like free housing could come to an end or civil war could return if the president is not re-elected.
"He brought you from the darkness into the light, that is the miracle of Bouteflika," Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal roared at the final rally in Algiers on Sunday.
Much of the 5,000-strong crowd at the rally came from public-sector companies or unions with ties to the government. Supporters were bused in from across country.
"It is true he's tired, but his brains still work — he doesn't need to use his hands," Akila Kelloud, a union member from the nearby city of Medea, said after the rally.
The country is in a delicate phase. Despite foreign reserves of $200 billion, international financial institutions are sounding alarm bells, describing the economy as overly dependent on oil even as prices are threatening to drop.
Oil and gas make up 95 percent of the country's exports and 63 percent of the budget revenue but employs only 2 percent of the labor force.
In a February report, the International Monetary Fund warned that "wide-ranging structural reforms" are needed to reduce unemployment and grow the economy. While heavy state spending has dropped unemployment to less than 10 percent, it is still at 25 percent for young people.
The man who says he can fix this situation is Ali Benflis, a former prime minister and the main opposition candidate among the five running against Bouteflika.
"I offer an alternative, a new project, and I want to put the youth into the center of decision-making," he told The Associated Press.
Jil Jadid’s Saidani says, based on his perceptions of popular opinion, that “if the elections aren’t fixed, Benflis will win.”
Benflis described how he visited all 48 provinces in the country and logged more than 100 hours of air travel in the course of the campaign — in contrast to Bouteflika's inactivity.
Benflis' challenge is not just to win over the millions who don't vote, but also to guard against fraud, which local and international observers say often characterize Algerian contests.
"If there is fraud I will not be quiet," he said. "I will not call for an uprising. I will ask the Algerians not to accept a false election."
Opposition is also appearing in a rare grass-roots organization of teachers, journalists, doctors and other professionals called Barakat — "enough" in the Algerian dialect — who have been staging small rallies around the country protesting corruption in the system.
It could build into something greater. The protests were initially brutally suppressed, but in the past weeks a few dozen have been allowed on downtown sidewalks, breaking a major taboo.
Sid Ali Kouidi Filali, one of the group's organizers, said the real work is to raise people's consciousness and make them realize that they can change the system.
"We are trying to re-engage the Algerian people in politics," he said.
Chafiq Mesbah, a political analyst and former intelligence officer, believes that all these scattered demonstrations — 10,000 of them in 2013, according to police — will slowly increase as the social and economic situation continues to deteriorate.
"I think all these little demonstrations will coalesce into a national movement," he said, citing the elections as a possible turning point. "It will be the beginning of a process, though the explosion won't happen immediately after."
Al Jazeera and wire services