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Algeria gears up for election year with aging president, opposition that is yet to offer challenger

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — Algeria is gearing up for an election year with an aging president and an opposition that is yet to present a candidate.

The oil-rich north African country faces mounting political and economic challenges as public dissatisfaction rises. Yet it remains unclear whether Algeria's presidential election, likely to be held in December, will inspire serious campaigning.

The Rally for Culture and Democracy, among the rare opposition parties maintaining a notable public presence in President Abdelmajid Tebboune 's Algeria, this week called on the government to “put in place political conditions for a debate to find a way out of crisis.”

Still, no candidate has stepped forward to challenge Tebboune, Algeria’s 78-year-old leader who came to power in 2019 and has not announced plans to run for a second term. He's maintained an air of mystery, contending last month that “the people will decide the right moment” for such an announcement.

The country's leading army general, Said Chengriha, has offered support for Tebboune, praising “the projects implemented over the past 4 years" and calling for “the continuation of this work.”

In Algeria, the army plays a major though behind-the-scenes role. Chanegriha’s predecessor, Ahmed Gaid Salah, helped push the late President Abdelaziz Bouteflika from office in 2019, ending his 20 years in power amid months of peaceful protest marches.

The current government's attempts to draw attention to efforts to fight corruption, revive the economy and chart a new course for Algeria, however, haven't been felt by all, retired railroad worker Hassan Lamari said Monday.

“Go to the market to see the prices instead of listening to propaganda on public television,” he told The Associated Press. “Meat and fish are luxuries for the majority of Algerians.”

The Rally for Culture and Democracy’s call for dialogue with those in power was made at a meeting on Sunday.

Tebboune has been convening with leaders of the country's political parties. Though few have broached the subject of this year's election, Louisa Hanoune, the leader of Algeria's Workers' Party, said discussions between the president and party leaders had touched on “all questions, without taboos."

She said Tebboune was open to all proposals, including demands for political and social reforms, and had taken questions about the status of imprisoned journalist Ihsane El Kadi.

Moves to reignite political dialogue and engage Algerians could inspire cautious optimism among some party leaders, but the electorate still has many reasons to remain disillusioned and politically disengaged.

More than four years after Tebboune rose to power promising to reach out to pro-democracy protestors who helped bring down his predecessor, Algeria continues to dole out harsh punishments against both journalists and activists who criticize the government. Members of the separatist Movement for the Self-Determination of Kabylie (MAK) were convicted this month of belonging to a terrorist group and undermining state security.

Both Algeria's state spending and the broader economy remain heavily reliant on oil and gas revenues. Throughout Tebboune's tenure, inflation, unemployment and food shortages have plagued its economy, and despite promised reforms, development has not expanded out to regions beyond the country's major cities.

As part of a record election-year budget, the government plans this year to raise public wages and pensions and establish an unemployment fund for young people. It has also presented potential tax cuts and maintained subsidies for key sectors.

In a country where elections have often been boycotted, calls for political dialogue from leading opposition parties don't mean they plan to participate or nominate challengers to Tebboune. Athmane Maazouz, the president of the Rally for Culture and Democracy, said Saturday that he was worried the elections “will be neither regular, open nor transparent” as promised.