Thousands in Algeria call for poll boycott

Opposition groups demonstrate in stadium to reject President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s run for another term.

There is growing anger and derision in Algeria over Bouteflika's intention to seek a fourth term [AFP]

Algerian opposition parties have rallied several thousand supporters to call for a boycott of next month’s election and to reject President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s run for another term after 15 years in power.

Bouteflika, the 77-year-old veteran of Algeria’s independence war, registered for the April 17 ballot despite suffering a stroke last year that opponents say has left him unfit to govern for another five years.

Chanting “Boycott” and “The people want the regime out,” around 5,000 people packed in an Algiers sports stadium where Islamist leaders and secular parties denounced Bouteflika’s bid and called for reforms to a political system they see as corrupt.

“The people here are the people who have been excluded, who have been put aside, but this is the real Algeria,” Mohsen Belabes, a leader with the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) party, told cheering crowds. “The regime will collapse, but Algeria will survive.”

But with the backing of the powerful ruling National Liberation Front (FLN), army factions and business elites, Bouteflika is almost assured victory, even though he has rarely spoken or been seen in public since his illness last year.

Friday’s rally was a rare opposition gathering in the North African oil producing country, where critics say rival clans of FLN elites and army generals have dominated politics behind the scenes since 1962 independence from France.

But the opposition remains weak and divided in the country, where memories of a 1990s bloody conflict with armed Islamists remain painfully fresh, leaving many Algerians wary of instability and political upheaval.

At Friday’s rally, rival Islamist and secular party supporters heckled and chanted at each other across the stadium in a reminder of splits between the RCD and the MSP Islamist party, who have been adversaries for years before both calling for the election boycott.

Rallies in halls ‘not enough’

The appearance of Ali Belhadj, an Islamist hardliner from the banned Islamic Salvation Front, further stoked opposition divisions in Friday’s crowd.

Salim Salihi, a local journalist, said that, despite the splits, Friday’s expression of dissent was a positive development.

However, he believed that demonstrations confined to stadiums and halls are “not sufficient” to create any change.

“It’s not enough for the opposition to protest in halls in the face of a regime that uses all security and legal measures to silence dissent,” he told Al Jazeera from Algiers.

“The opposition must take to the street to reach out to the people and engage directly with them to rebuild the trust.”

All protests are banned in Algeria under a decree issued in 2001. A nationwide state of emergency in place for almost two decades allows the government to ban any event that is “likely to disturb public order and tranquility”.

Algeria was barely affected by a wave of pro-democracy protests that swept the Arab world in 2011, but the government seems to be bracing for demonstrations amid a growing anger over Bouteflika’s decision to seek a fourth term.

Human Rights Watch, in a report released last week. warned that Algerian authorities were deploying large numbers of police and arresting protesters ahead of the elections.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies