A string of white pearls around her neck, her hair tied in a bun, Louisa Hanoune, the only woman running for Algeria’s presidency, holds out her palms and declares: “I have clean hands”.
The remark triggers an outburst of celebratory ululations and chants of “Louisa! Louisa!” among supporters of the 60-year-old leftist candidate, who is widely popular in Algeria, even among conservatives hostile to feminism.
“I have clean hands,” she declares in a husky voice. “I have not held back, I have not sold off any businesses, I have not oppressed women.”
She was speaking at a gathering in Kolea, about 40 kilometres (25 miles) west of Algiers, where many women were among the roughly 300 supporters of the head of the Worker’s Party, who has been a member of parliament since 1997.
The April 17 election is “an unprecedented review of the history of independent Algeria,” argues the veteran leftist whose campaign calls for “Audacity” and “For a Second Republic”.
Explaining the slogans, Hanoune says it “is 52 years since independence, we must finish with the one-party system which is stripping the people of their sovereignty”.
Algeria needs the “audacity to tax the wealthy… to suspend the Association Agreement with the European Union and accession to the World Trade Organisation, and to withdraw from the Arab Free Trade Area,” she adds.
Her targets are multinational companies and “foreign hands” which she accuses of slipping into civilian clothing and trying to drag the country into new violence.
In her third campaign for the presidency, Hanoune also has in her sights Ali Benflis, seen as the main challenger to incumbent President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, for whom she does not hide her admiration.
“She knows the president is surrounded by wolves, and she is trying to get closer to him in order to unmask them,” reasoned Abdelkader, a taxi driver in his 40s.
Benflis was absent from the last leadership contest, in 2009, in which Hanoune came a distant second, officially scoring 4.2 percent to Bouteflika’s landslide 90.2 percent, although she alleged widespread fraud.
– ‘Better than Chavez’ –
A nationalist and a communist, Hanoune is often described as “Algeria’s Chavez”.
“I’ll do better than him,” she says in reference to the late Venezuelan president. “He had the courage to prise his country from the grip of the IMF and the World Bank, but failed to cancel debt.”
A charismatic orator, Hanoune raised the Trotskyist Worker’s Party, which was founded secretly in the 1980s, to the ranks of one of the main political parties in the National Assembly.
Her convictions were forged in an uncompromising struggle to annul the Family Code, passed in 1984 and still standing, which relegates Algerian women to the status of second class citizens.
But unlike other Algerian feminists, she isn’t considered part of the Westernised elite who speak French and are widely despised among the general public.
A law graduate from the University of Annaba, Hanoune is bilingual and has a rare command of Arabic for an Algerian leader, mixing classic and street Arabic to make herself understood by ordinary people.
It was in July 1991, at a gathering broadcast live on state television, that many Algerians first discovered the outspoken politician, as she demanded the release of the main leaders of the now-disbanded Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) after their imprisonment.
During the devastating civil war that erupted months later, following the military-backed decision to cancel elections that the Islamists were poised to win, Hanoune steadfastly called for a negotiated solution.
At the height of the bloodshed, Hanoune never abandoned her apartment and party headquarters in the working-class Algiers district of El Harrach, even as most of her rivals moved to safer neighbourhoods.
“I refused the offer to live in Club des Pins,” she said of the resort west of the capital where some of the political elite took refuge at the time.