Campaigning for Algeria’s April 17 presidential election has begun as criticism mounts of a bid by incumbent Abdelaziz Bouteflika to clinch a fourth term despite concerns over his health.
The president rejected such concerns in a message to the nation on Saturday, insisting he was fit to govern and had decided to run in answer to persistent calls from Algerians.
“It is my duty to respond positively, because never in my life have I shied away from the call of duty,” Bouteflika said.
“The difficulties linked to my health do not appear to disqualify me in your eyes or plead in favour of me giving up the heavy responsibilities which have, in part, affected my health,” APS news agency quoted him as saying.
It would grieve me to ignore your calls and that is why I decided, so as not to disappoint you, to stand in the presidential election...
Bouteflika, who is widely expected to win, will square off against five other presidential hopefuls, including one woman, Louisa Hanoune, and key challenger Ali Benflis.
Former prime minister Abdelmalek Sellal, Bouteflika’s campaign chief, gave scant details of the long-promised changes as he opened the re-election campaign with a speech in the southern desert town of Adrar.
Sellal was closely involved in the 2004 and 2009 campaigns that returned the president to power, and he himself has travelled across Algeria in past months to play up Bouteflika’s track record.
That record has come under heavy criticism in Algeria, where politicians and civil society groups have expressed opposition to Bouteflika’s re-election.
Sellal told the rally in Adrar that the constitutional changes, first promised in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings that swept the region in
2011, would be adopted this year.
“Algeria will have a broad democracy, a participatory democracy. Every citizen will take part in the country’s development,” said Sellal, who stepped down as prime minister to run Bouteflika’s re-election campaign.
“We are going to expand the rights of the people’s elected representatives and the opposition parties will have their constitutional rights,” he told a crowd of about 1,000 people.
Sellal gave no further details of the proposed changes, a draft of which he handed to Bouteflika in September last year, the AFP news agency reported.
Calls for boycott
The opposition says Bouteflika’s rule has been dogged by corruption, while protests and calls for the fall of the government have multiplied.
Former president Liamine Zeroual has joined the chorus of dissent and slammed the 2008 amended constitution that allowed Bouteflika to win a third term.
In remarks published by the press, Zeroual said he had a “moral obligation” to speak out and demanded “a handover of power”.
On Friday, thousands attended a meeting convened to urge a boycott of the vote, and dozens of people demonstrated the next day to call for the fall of the government.
Anger has mounted since Bouteflika, frail looking and his voice barely audible, was seen on state television on March 3 formally announcing that he was seeking a fourth term.
It was the first time he had spoken in public in two years. Since returning home from hospital in Paris, the president has chaired just two cabinet meetings and only rarely appeared in public.