Tens of thousands of Algerians are expected to rally against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s plan to seek a fifth term in office on Saturday, in what may become Algeria’s biggest protest since its independence in 1962.
Protesters have staged daily demonstrations across the country since February 22, nearly two weeks after Bouteflika confirmed via a letter that he would stand in the April 18 polls.
The grassroots and largely peaceful anti-Bouteflika movement has galvanised the fragmented Algerian opposition, which until recently spent as much time dealing with internal disputes as it did fighting the government.
But since the protests started, a number of opposition groups have resumed dialogue to come up with a joint strategy to keep the pressure on President Bouteflika.
Nearly 30 political groups, ranging from secular to Islamist factions, met on March 7 in Algiers, at the headquarters of Talaie El Hourriyet party founded by Bouteflika’s top challenger, Ali Benflis, in 2015.
“This is the second and the largest gathering of opposition forces since Bouteflika announced his intention to run for reelection,” Faycal Hardi, a high-ranking Talaie El Hourriyet member, told Al Jazeera.
Louisa Hanoune, the head of Algeria’s Labour Party, Mohcine Belabbas, the president of the liberal Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), and Abderrazak Makri, the leader of Algeria’s Islamist Movement for Society for Peace (MSP), took part in the negotiations to discuss ways to cooperate against Bouteflika.
They were joined by anti-government figures, such as human rights lawyer Mustafa Bouchachi, and former Minister of Finance Ahmed Benbitour, among many others.
All have previously called for a boycott of April elections amid allegations of ballot fraud in favour of President Bouteflika, who has been in office for the past two decades.
“Here, nobody believes that the presidential election will be free, it will be controlled by the administration,” Hardi said.
“April 18 ballot is more a nomination of the incumbent president than a real and transparent vote,” he added.
Despite the encroaching vote, participants left the meeting with no agreement, saying they needed more time to discuss the issues.
“This is only the beginning of the consultations. We cannot expect to reach a national consensus so quickly,” RCD’s Belabbas told Al Jazeera.
“There are so many issues that remain to be discussed. For instance, we need to question the nature of the regime we would like to establish after the implosion of this long-lasting system.
“We should ask ourselves if we really want to preserve a presidential system.”
Opposition parties remain divided on whether to demand the impeachment of ailing President Bouteflika or pursue other means to remove him.
Some of his opponents say that Bouteflika is no longer fit to lead Africa‘s largest country in terms of territory and have called for the enforcement of article 102 of Algeria’s Constitutional Law, which states that if an illness “prevents a leader from governing the country (they) must step down”.
Wheelchair-bound Bouteflika, who has been barely seen in public and has cancelled several official engagements since suffering a stroke in 2013, is reportedly still receiving treatment in Geneva, where he arrived for “routine medical tests” on February 24.
Bouteflika’s prolonged medical stay in Switzerland shows his “blatant incapacity” to rule the country, the Labour Party’s Hanoune said.
According to Benflis, Algeria has experienced a “vacuum of power” and “extra-constitutional forces” have been governing the North African country “without official position nor accountability” for many years.
Many observers say that the vacuum has empowered those around the president, including his younger brother, Said Bouteflika, who plays a powerful role in his inner circle.
Other opposition parties have pledged a far more radical stance, demanding the immediate resignation of both President Bouteflika and his government.
“There is no need to implement article 102 of the Constitution as the law as it is already obsolete,” RCD’s Belabbas said.
“This will only offer more time for the same long-standing rulers to find a way to stay in power. The best option is to agree on the establishment of an inclusive and transparent body, either a temporary government or a constitutional assembly, to handle the transitional process,” he added.
Some senior opposition figures are still reluctant to collaborate.
The Mouwatana (Citizenship) umbrella opposition movement and the liberal Jil Jadid (New Generation) did not take part in the opposition gathering.
“We cannot reconcile our differences as long as some opposition parties have deputies sitting in parliament,” Walid Hadjadj, member of Jil Jadid, told Al Jazeera.
“They must resign because the parliament is not a legitimate institution. They cannot have one foot in the opposition and the other one in the regime. They must choose.”