ALGIERS: Algeria on Friday announced a presidential election for April 18 without indicating whether veteran leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika would stand, following calls for his nomination by a loyal ruling caste of businessmen, trade unions and the military.
The 81-year old leader, who has been in office since 1999 and rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013, has now 45 days to say whether he wants to seek a fifth term.
Under the constitution the election date was made necessary by the expiry in April of Bouteflika’s fourth term.
Algeria’s ruling coalition and other leading figures in labor unions and the business world had previously urged him to run again for the presidency.
But there have been concerns about his health.
In December, Boutelfika, who has been wheelchair-bound since 2013, was unable to meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman when he came to Algiers for a two-day visit due to acute flu.
His last meeting with a senior foreign official was during a visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sept. 17. An earlier meeting with Merkel and a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte were canceled.
The North African country, an OPEC oil producer, avoided the major political upheaval seen in many other Arab countries in the past decade but has experienced some protests and strikes. Unemployment, especially among young people, remains high.
The economy has improved over the past year as oil and gas revenues have picked up, allowing authorities to ease austerity measures imposed when they halved between 2014 to 2017. Oil and gas revenues account for 60 percent of the budget and 94 percent of export revenues.
Bouteflika’s announcement of the election date will ease concerns that the vote might get postponed, say analysts.
In 1991, the army canceled elections which a conservative party was set to win, triggering almost a decade of civil war that killed some 200,000 people.
“This decision shows that Bouteflika is sticking to the constitution,” said political analyst Arslan Chikhaoui.
Observers say if Bouteflika runs again he is set to win, as the opposition is divided into conservatives and secular parties.
Bouteflika is part of a thinning elite of the veterans who fought France in the 1954-1962 independence war and have run Algeria ever since. Many also credit him with ending the civil war by offering former extremist fighters amnesty.
Bouteflika’s supporters say his mind remains sharp, even though he needs a microphone to speak. The opposition says he is not fit to run again.
He is unlikely to face competition from within ruling circles. Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, leader of the National Rally for Democracy (RND) allied to the FLN, has already said he will not run if Bouteflika goes for a fifth term.
Nobody has yet said they will run against Bouteflika, even though the president has said he wants more competition. He won with 82 percent of the vote in 2014, 90 percent in 2009, 85 percent in 2004 and 74 percent in 1999.
The government has said it wants to diversify the economy away from oil and gas, which accounts for 60 percent of budget finances, but there has been resistance from those within the ruling elite to opening up to foreign investment.
That has left the economy dominated by the state and firms run by business tycoons.
‘I am Algeria’
When he came to power, with the support of an army battling guerrillas, nobody expected him to stay in office for so long.
But “Boutef,” as many Algerians nickname him, was instrumental in fostering peace after a decade-long civil war in the 1990s.
“I am the whole of Algeria. I am the embodiment of the Algerian people,” he said in 1999, the year he became president.
But he has had a long battle with illness and frequently flown to France for treatment.
Known for wearing a three-piece suit even in the stifling heat, he gained respect from many for his role in ending the civil war, which official figures say killed nearly 200,000 people.