ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — Nearly a week from regional elections, Algerians are less interested in the public vote than an intensifying behind-the-scenes power struggle — one that is playing out through a flurry of corruption probes.
Though ostensibly a democracy, Algeria is really ruled by a powerful president and a shadowy collection of military generals and intelligence chiefs, making figuring out who has real power a constant preoccupation.
Thursday's local elections, like last May's legislative ones, mean little to people who know that real power lies with officials that have been appointed, not elected.
Aging President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has said he will retire in April 2014 after three terms and 15 years in power, setting the stage for a wide open presidential contest for the first time in the country's history.
Voters expect to have little direct say in the outcome.
Like the rest of North Africa, Algeria was shaken by protests calling for reform in the wake of Tunisia's dramatic overthrow of its long-ruling dictator in January 2011.
But in this North African country of 35 million, the protests never truly caught fire and were crushed by a combination of ruthless security forces and public sector salary increases, as well as lingering fears of instability after a decade-long civil war in the 1990s that claimed more than 200,000 lives.
The stakes are high for the presidential elections for not only this oil-rich nation, but for the region as a whole: Algeria has the strongest military in North Africa and neighbors unstable Libya and even more fragile Mali, where al-Qaida appears to control much of the north.
When a new daily newspaper began printing stories last week about three prominent politicians with close ties to Bouteflika taking bribes, it was widely taken as an opening salvo ahead of the presidential polls.
"These revelations are directly related to current politics and the upcoming 2014 presidential elections," said Rachid Tlemcani, a politics professor at Algiers University. "Corruption has reached grotesque proportions in Algeria, but rather than being fought with the law, it is unfortunately used as a weapon by the different clans in the system fighting among themselves since the war for succession to Bouteflika has opened."
That fight involves control over billions of dollars.
Algeria is awash in oil and natural gas money and has foreign reserves of almost $200 billion. It has embarked on a string high profile infrastructure projects — and accusations are rife that foreign companies have been paying massive bribes to secure contracts. That has all contributed to Algeria's ranking of 112 out of 183 countries on Transparency International's 2011 corruption index.
The head of the ruling party, Abdelaziz Belkhadem, the minister of public works, Amar Ghoul, and well as the minister of industry, Cherif Rahmani, have all been accused by Algerie News of taking bribes to influence bids for the $12 billion East-West highway project (won by a Chinese-Japanese consortium), the Algiers metro and an extension of the tramway.