Algeria’s incumbent President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is running again for the highest state office despite the massive protests against him in recent days.
In a message published on Sunday evening, however, Bouteflika surprised everyone by announcing his intention to withdraw if he is re-elected. He will not rule for the full term, but there will be early elections, state news agency APS reported. In such an election, he himself would not run again. At the same time, he announced a national conference to discuss political, economic and social reforms.
Leading opposition politicians announced a boycott of the election and called for further protests. Algeria’s largest moderate Islamist party, HMS, has decided not to contest the vote should Bouteflika stand for re-election, the party said. Former head of government Ali Benflis, who got the second most votes behind Bouteflika in the presidential election five years ago, also announced his withdrawal. He had already accused Bouteflika of systematic election fraud in 2014.
Tens of thousands of people had already taken to the streets in numerous Algerian cities on Sunday morning to demonstrate against a fifth term in office and for democratic reforms. Police used tear gas and weapon launchers against the crowd at the sealed-off headquarters of Algeria’s Constitutional Council, according to eyewitnesses. There the candidates had to submit their documents.
Large parts of the capital Algiers remained peaceful throughout the day. People also marched peacefully through the streets of other major cities in the country. "Bouteflika and Your Clan: Get Out!", shouted demonstrators. Critics see Bouteflika as a puppet of military, family clans and the country’s influential business elite.
In recent days, hundreds of thousands of Algerians had demonstrated against Bouteflika. Many called for democratic reforms. These are the largest protests since the end of the civil war. In the so-called Black Decade in the 1990s, more than 150 died.000 people.
Bouteflika was elected president in 1999 as the preferred candidate of the Algerian military. He has been confined to a wheelchair since a stroke in 2013 and has great difficulty speaking. He rarely makes public appearances and recently had to cancel several meetings with heads of state – including a visit by Angela Merkel in 2017. Most recently, Bouteflika was in Geneva, Switzerland, for medical examinations, according to media reports.
Bouteflika had already weathered protests in 2011 during the so-called Arab Spring. His government responded to the protests with slight reforms and raising subsidies. However, the country’s economy has been hit hard by the drop in oil and gas prices. Unemployment is about 13 percent, according to the World Bank, but among the under-25s it is more than 24 percent.
Mass protests on Friday had seen clashes between demonstrators and police. According to the General Directorate of Security Forces, 56 police officers and seven demonstrators were injured in the incident. 45 demonstrators had been arrested. Interior Minister Nouredine Bedoui confirmed that a 56-year-old died. He succumbed to a heart attack, announced the news agency APS.