Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who suffered a stroke last year, will run for a fourth term in April in response to demands from his supporters, officials said Saturday.
The president, who turns 77 next month, has ruled the North African country since his election in 1999, and his health woes had made his candidacy in the poll unlikely.
Last year Bouteflika suffered a mini-stroke and was hospitalised in Paris for three months, and returned to the French capital in January for a medical visit that fuelled speculation about his well-being.
All this was put to rest on Saturday when Bouteflika’s office announced he had informed the interior ministry of his intention to run in the April 17 poll and had collected appropriate documents.
The electoral law requires candidates to gather at least 60,000 signatures from supporters across no fewer than 25 provinces by midnight on March 4, and the documents will be used to that end.
Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal said Bouteflika had made his decision in “response to the encouragement of citizens from all over the country”.
“President Bouteflika is in good health. He has the intellectual capacity and vision needed to guarantee this responsibility,” Sellal told a news conference.
But he added Bouteflika could rely on aides to run the presidential campaign, which officially opens March 23.
“The president is not obliged to do everything. Members of his support committees can take charge,” said Sellal, who was his campaign manager in 2004 and in 2009.
Ironically, Bouteflika has not made any public addresses since returning home from hospital, has only received a few foreign dignitaries and chaired just two cabinet meetings.
More than 80 people have said they will run, with the most serious challenger among them appearing to be Ali Benflis, known as a defender of human rights and popular with intellectuals.
Benflis, 69, was prime minister during Bouteflika’s first term in office and ran against him in 2004. Bouteflika was elected in the first round with 85 percent of votes and Benflis claimed it was due to fraud.
Bouteflika, one of the few remaining veterans of the war of independence against France, came to power in 1999 with the support of the military.
He ran unopposed as the candidate of the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) after all other candidates withdrew, citing fears of electoral fraud.
The latter years of his rule have been dogged by ill health and, more recently, by corruption scandals implicating members of his inner circle.
‘Step down with dignity’
Bouteflika has also tried to check the power of military and intelligence leaders who have played a key role in politics since Algeria’s independence in 1962.
Despite his efforts to roll back their prerogatives, the army and its secretive DRS intelligence agency retain a great deal of political power.
There has been a mounting war of words over the military’s role in public life, relayed by the independent media, in which senior officers were portrayed as opposing a fourth term for Bouteflika.
This month, a retired senior general urged him to step down “with dignity” and not stand for reelection.
Hocine Benhadid also accused his inner circle of “treason” after Amar Saidani, the ruling party’s secretary general, publicly accused the military intelligence chief of interfering in politics to the detriment of Algeria’s security.
But Bouteflika himself hit out Tuesday at what he said were moves to undermine his office and the army, suggesting both were falling prey to political infighting.
“The fictitious conflict… within the ranks of the People’s National Army is linked to a destabilisation plan developed by those troubled by Algeria’s regional weight and influence,” he said, without elaborating.
Bouteflika, who never married and has no children, has been credited by many Algerians with helping end the murderous civil war in the 1990s that killed at least 150,000 people.
The conflict was sparked by the military-backed government’s decision to cancel elections in 1991 which an Islamist party had been poised to win.
The main Islamist party, the Movement for the Society of Peace, has said it will boycott the presidential election, citing the lack of political reform, lack of transparency and power grab by current politicians.