Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 June 2019

Abdelaziz Bouteflika's offer: Elect me and we'll agree a succession plan within a year

Hours after the offer, more protesters gathered in Algiers

Algerian people attend a demonstration as the president submitted his candidacy papers. EPA
Algerian people attend a demonstration as the president submitted his candidacy papers. EPA

An attempt by Algeria’s ailing leader to placate protesters by saying he would not serve a full term if re-elected appeared to have done little to dampen the biggest challenge to the country’s authorities in years.

A fresh demonstration erupted in central Algiers and elsewhere in the country in the early hours of Monday morning, after 82-year-old Abdelaziz Bouteflika submitted his candidacy for the April 18 poll late on Sunday night, formalising his bid to extend a 20-year rule.

In a letter read out on state television by the campaign director, Abdelghani Zaalane, the president vowed to step down after a year if re-elected. He said he would organise a "national conference" that would set a date for early polls which he would not contest.

"I pledge not to be a candidate in that election which will ensure I am succeeded in undeniable conditions of serenity, freedom and transparency," the letter said. "I listened and heard the cry from the hearts of protesters and in particular the thousands of young people who questioned me about the future of our homeland.”

Mr Bouteflika, who suffered a stroke in 2013, has been in Switzerland for a week undergoing what the presidency describes as "routine medical tests". The veteran leader has rarely been seen in public since his stroke.

After the announcement hundreds of youths gathered in the centre of Algiers. Local websites also reported protests in Bouira, Tizi, Ouzou and Boufarik.

Several hundreds of mainly young men marched through Algiers' centre, where riot police were blocking some roads, chanting anti-government slogans. The protests appeared to be mostly peaceful.

The statement from Mr Bouteflika was the first since protests broke out 10 days ago – the biggest in Algeria since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.

Tens of thousands of protesters had been rallying throughout the day in cities around Algeria, calling on Mr Bouteflika not to submit election papers, the deadline for which was Sunday.

"We will not stop until we get rid of this system," Aicha, a 23-year-old student, who declined to give her full name, told Reuters.

It came after clashes erupted between police and protesters in Algiers on Friday, with riot police using tear gas and batons to stop people marching on the Government Palace, which houses the prime minister’s office.

According to a police toll, 56 police officers and seven demonstrators were hurt and 45 alleged stone-throwers were arrested in Algiers. Other estimates put the number of injured at 183.

Many young Algerians struggling to find jobs in a country where half the population is under 30 and unemployment exceeds 25 per cent.

With no public succession plans, analysts have suggested that the ruling FLN party is hoping to avoid a potentially bruising internal struggle for a new leader if Mr Bouteflika did not stand again.

Known for wearing a three-piece suit even in the stifling heat, Mr Bouteflika still has wide respect for his role in ending Algeria’s decades-long civil war that official figures say killed nearly 200,000 people.

He has ruled Algeria since 1999 and in the early years of his rule stamped out a decade-long Islamist insurgency.

Given his ability to bring the country together after the war and provide stability, many accepted a situation with little space for public dissent. The latest protests appear to have ended this status-quo.

Algerian police stand guard during a demonstration in the capital Algiers on March 4, 2019 against ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's bid for a fifth term. Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika pledged Sunday not to serve a full term if re-elected at April polls after huge protests against his bid to extend his 20 years in power. The ailing leader vowed in an 11th-hour letter read out on state television to organise a "national conference" that would set a date for early polls which he would not contest. The announcement came after hundreds of students staged new protests Sunday in the Algerian capital and other cities against a fifth term ahead of a midnight deadline for candidates to register for the 18 April vote. / AFP / RYAD KRAMDI
Algerian police stand guard during a demonstration in the capital Algiers on March 4. AFP

The government under Mr Bouteflika led a huge infrastructure overhaul and development plan funded by the country’s ample natural resources and oil and gas supplies. But when oil prices dropped after 2014, the government struggled to maintain the ballooning subsidy program that now accounts for over 20 per cent of the national budget.

A plans to slash handouts was shelved in the run-up to the election, with politicians concerned it would lead to protests.

Thousands of Algerian expats have joined the protests, with marches in French cities. French police said 6,000 demonstrators turned out at the Place de la Republique in Paris, while organisers put the number at 10,000. Another 1,000 gathered in the southern port city of Marseille.

However, analysts say the protesters lack leadership and organisation in a country still dominated by veterans of the 1954-1962 independence war against France, including Mr Bouteflika.

Opposition groups have failed to agree on a single candidate, with seven registered to run by Sunday night, making any campaign an uphill challenge against the dominant FLN party.

Updated: March 4, 2019 12:19 PM

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