Algiers, Algeria – The campaign manager of Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has been facing nearly two weeks of protests against his bid for a fifth term, says the ailing leader will call for early polls if he is reelected in April’s vote.
Abdelaghani Zaalane made the announcement on Sunday after submitting the candidacy papers at the Constitutional Council office in Algiers on behalf of the 82-year-old president – even as the head of the election commission said all presidential contenders must formally register in person.
Bouteflika, who suffered a stroke in 2013 and has been barely seen in public since, flew to Switzerland for “routine medical check-up” on February 24 and has reportedly remained hospitalised in Geneva University Hospital.
In a letter attributed to him, the president addressed for the first time the unprecedented large-scale grassroots movement calling for him to step down immediately and peacefully.
“I have heard the pleas of protesters and especially the thousands of young people who asked about our nation’s future,” the statement read out by Zaalane on national TV, said.
“I am committed to the organisation of an early presidential election,” the date of which will be decided by a “national conference” set up after the April 18 vote. “I pledge not to be a candidate for this election,” Bouteflika said, while also calling for a new revision of the constitution.
Anti-Bouteflika protesters, however, denounced the president’s announcement as a “farce” and “meaningless”.
“This letter shows that Bouteflika is not willing to step down,” Habib, a 30-year-old entrepreneur in Algiers, said.
“The president and his government are ready to stay in power at all costs,” he added. “We, the people, will answer to his letter by massively and peacefully taking the streets.”
Abderrahmane, a computer engineer who lives in Blida, agreed.
“The content of this letter does not meet the population’s expectations,” he said. “The Algerian people are aware and have not forgotten Bouteflika’s promise made in 2012, during his last public speech, when he said that his generation should leave the power to the younger population. We are still waiting for him to keep his promise”.
INSIDE STORY: Why won’t Bouteflika step down? (24:20)
Anti-Bouteflika demonstrations first broke out on February 22, about two weeks after the president confirmed his plan to run in the April 18 vote, with many expressing doubts over his ability to lead the country.
On Sunday, the deadline for presidential contenders to register their candidacy, hundreds of mostly young people once again demonstrated against Bouteflika’s plan, yelling chants and slogans such as “No fifth term” and “No Bouteflika, no Said,” referring to the president’s younger brother and special adviser.
Police used tear gas and water cannon to discourage the protesters from reaching the heavily-guarded Constitutional Council office.
Questions over absence
Zaalane, a former transport minister who on Saturday replaced ex-Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal as Bouteflika’s campaign chief, did not comment on the president’s absence after submitting his official candidacy papers.
Bouteflika’s non-show, however, raises many questions.
“The rule is explicit. For a presidential election, all candidates must present themselves at the Constitutional Council to submit their candidacy papers,” Abdelwahab Derbal, the head of the election commission,told reporters on Sunday.
If his candidacy is approved by the Constitutional Council, Bouteflika will face six other candidates who have formally registered, including retired general Ali Ghediri and businessman Rachid Nekkaz.
However, former Prime Minister Ali Benflis, who came second in the 2014 presidential elections, announced earlier on Sunday that he would not join the presidential race and called for an election boycott.
Two other opposition parties, the Labour Party, led by Louisa Hanoune, and the Islamist Movement Society for Peace, have also said they will boycott the polls.