Algeria’s Bouteflika declares re-election bid despite mass protests

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Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has submitted official papers confirming he will seek re-election next month, Ennahar TV said on Sunday, despite mass protests against the 82-year-old extending his 20-year rule.

There was no official confirmation, however, although state news agency APS published a declaration of his assets, which is one formal requirement for him to run in the April 18 presidential election.

Adding to the confusion, election commission head Abdelwahab Derbal said that each candidate must appear in person at the Constitutional Council in Algiers by midnight on Sunday if they wish to stand.

On Sunday evening, Bouteflika’s campaign manager Abdelghani Zaalane arrived at the council in Algiers, a Reuters witness said. He did not speak to reporters as he went into the building.

People protest against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's plan to extend his 20-year rule
People protest against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s plan to extend his 20-year rule

Tens of thousands of protesters had been rallying throughout the day in cities around Algeria to call for Bouteflika to step down after his 20 years in power. Bouteflika has not spoken about the protests or addressed the protesters’ concerns.

On Friday demonstrators filled the center of the capital in one of the biggest displays of dissent – rare in Algeria – since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings which unseated rulers in neighboring countries.

Official election papers were submitted for Bouteflika, 82, in shaky health for years, at the Constitutional Council in Algiers on Sunday, the private TV channel said.

A Reuters witness said trucks from the elderly leader’s campaign team arrived at the Constitutional Council on Sunday afternoon.

But there was no sign of Bouteflika, who Swiss television said on Saturday night had been in a hospital in Geneva that day. The president has rarely been seen in public since he suffered a stroke in 2013

Addition to the confusion, Al-Arabiya television quoted an official in Boutleflika’s team as saying the papers had yet to be submitted. They would be read out after the formal move, the station added.

His opponents say he is no longer fit to lead, citing his health and what they call chronic corruption and a lack of economic reforms to tackle high unemployment, which exceeds 25 percent among people under the age of 30.

Analysts say the protesters, who began hitting the streets 10 days ago, lack leadership and organization in a country still dominated by veterans, like Bouteflika, of the 1954-62 independence war against France.

But traditionally weak and divided opposition and civic groups have called for protests to go on should Bouteflika, in power for 20 years, continue pursuit of re-election.

The government has played on fears among many Algerians of a return of bloodshed seen in the 1990s when an estimated 200,000 people were killed after Islamists took up arms when the military canceled elections they were poised to win.

But the new series of protests have been generally peaceful, apart from Friday when scuffles with police left 183 injured.

Thousands of students gathered on Sunday at university faculties, one of them near the Constitutional Council where presidential candidates filed their papers, chanting: “No to a fifth term!” or “A free and democratic Algeria!”

There was heavy security around the Constitutional Council, and police prevented restive students from leaving the campus nearby, keeping the main gates shut.

But thousands were later marching through the center like on Friday. A diplomatic source estimated as many as 70,000 people had massed in Algiers, including a rally at Bab Ezzouar university, the country’s biggest.

“We will not stop until we get rid of this system,” said Aicha, a 23-year-old student.

According to witnesses and local television footage, protesters also turned out in their thousands in other cities around the North African country such as Oran, Constantine, Annaba, Batna, Blida, Skikda and Bouira. Some 6,000 also protested in central Paris, where many Algerians live.

By evening, seven candidates running against Bouteflika had registered. The first to arrive was Ali Ghediri, a retired general. “I tell the people a new dawn has started,” he told reporters.

Another candidate, Rachid Nakkaz, a businessman, came in a taxi and said: “We should remain peaceful to give a good image of our democracy.”

Opposition groups failed to agree on one candidate, making any campaign a tough uphill challenge in a country dominated by one party – the FLN – since independence.

Many Algerians eschewed public political activity for years, for fear of trouble from the pervasive security apparatus or out of disillusionment with the lack of change in the leadership.

After the decade-long Islamist insurgency that Bouteflika crushed early in his rule, Algerians generally tolerated a political system leaving little room for dissent as a price to pay for relative peace and stability.

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