Algerian President Bouteflika drops bid for fifth term following mass protests

Returning home from Swiss hospital, authoritarian leader vows to hand over presidential reins to a successor who will be ‘freely chosen by the Algerian people’

Algerians hold a national flag as they celebrate on an Algiers street on March 11, 2019, after President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced his withdrawal from a bid for another term in office. (RYAD KRAMDI / AFP)
Algerians hold a national flag as they celebrate on an Algiers street on March 11, 2019, after President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced his withdrawal from a bid for another term in office. (RYAD KRAMDI / AFP)

ALGIERS, Algeria — Algeria’s ailing president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, announced Monday that he is dropping his bid for a fifth term in office, a surprise move following weeks of protests against his candidacy.

“Peacefully, we have overthrown the puppet!” people sang in the streets of the capital, Algiers, following the announcement.

Celebratory honking of car horns rang out in the city center, which was deserted by police after they had deployed in large numbers earlier in the day.

“There will not be a fifth term,” Bouteflika said in a message carried by the official APS news agency, while suggesting that he would remain in office until his term expires on April 28.

“There will be no presidential election on April 18,” the veteran leader said, adding that he was responding to “a pressing demand that you have many of you have made to me.”

He vowed “to hand over the duties and prerogatives of the president of the republic to the successor freely chosen by the Algerian people.”

The announcement was followed by the naming of interior minister Noureddine Bedoui as prime minister in place of Ahmed Ouyahia, according to APS.

Algeria’s ‘new dynamic’

Bouteflika, whose rare public appearances since he suffered a stroke in 2013 have been in a wheelchair, returned to Algeria on Sunday after spending two weeks at a hospital in Switzerland.

Demonstrations against his bid for another term brought tens of thousands of protesters onto the streets for each of the last three Fridays, with smaller demonstrations taking place on other days.

Former colonial power France welcomed the decision.

“France expresses its hope that a new dynamic that can answer the deep aspirations of the Algerian people will rapidly take hold,” Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a statement.

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika seen voting at a polling station in the capital Algiers during polls for local elections in 2017. (RYAD KRAMDI / AFP)

Lawyers across Algeria joined strike action on Monday against Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term in office, demanding the Constitutional Council reject his candidacy on grounds of “incapacity” to carry out the role.

Bouteflika’s return from Geneva came as protest strikes Sunday shut down the capital’s public transport system and many schools across the vast country.

The 82-year-old leader had left Algeria on February 24 for what the presidency described as “routine medical checks.”

‘Painful years’

Since the outbreak of protests last month, Algeria’s army chief, Ahmed Gaid Salah, has pledged to guarantee national security and criticized those he said want to return to the “painful years” of the civil war of the 1990s.

Bouteflika became president in 1999 and he has clung to power despite his ill health.

Dubbed Boutef by Algerians, he had helped foster peace after the decade-long civil war, but he also faced criticism for alleged authoritarianism.

When the Arab Spring uprisings erupted across the Middle East and North Africa, Bouteflika’s regime smothered dissent and played on fears of a repeat of Algeria’s civil war.

His government lifted a 19-year state of emergency, granted pay rises, and announced piecemeal political reforms.

But those reforms, announced in “a climate of fear,” were shelved once the situation was brought under control, a European diplomat said.

Little by little, Bouteflika returned the regime to its authoritarian ways.

He was elected for a fourth term in April 2014 with 81.5 percent of the vote, despite not campaigning.

Bouteflika has a history of medical problems and has often flown to France or Switzerland for treatment.

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