ALGIERS (Reuters) – Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, facing mass protests over his 20 years in power, will run in April’s elections, his campaign manager said on Sunday, with Ennahar TV saying he had offered to step down after a year if re-elected.
The announcement read out by Abdelghani Zaalane on Bouteflika’s behalf said that the president pledged to organize an early election, with Ennahar TV saying that this would be held within a year.
The comments are likely to be viewed as an attempt to appease those who had taken to the streets for 10 days to protest against the 82-year-old’s plans to remain in office and to allow him an exit on his own terms.
Bouteflika’s statement was his first since the biggest displays of dissent in Algeria since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings that unseated rulers in neighboring countries.
In a sign of a disconnect from the mostly young population, almost 70 percent of which are aged below 30, he communicated via letter, as he has since suffering a stroke in 2013.
Tens of thousands of protesters had been rallying throughout the day in cities around Algeria, calling on Bouteflika not to submit election papers for the April 18 polls, the deadline for which was Sunday.
Zaalane arrived to submit the documents on Sunday evening, but there was no sign of Bouteflika, who Swiss television said remained at a hospital in Geneva.
“I listened and heard the passionate call from the protesters, especially the thousands of young people,” Bouteflika wrote, repeating a previous pledge to hold a referendum on constitutional reform.
There was no immediate response from protesters, who had dispersed by the time the letter was published in the evening.
Just before Bouteflika’s announcement, the head of the election commission, Abdelwahab Derbal, said that all candidates must submit their candidacy papers in person. If applied, this would mean Bouteflika could not run.
Bouteflika’s opponents say he is no longer fit to lead, citing his health and what they call chronic corruption and a lack of economic reforms to tackle high unemployment, which exceeds 25 percent among people under 30.
Analysts say the protesters lack leadership and organization in a country still dominated by veterans of the 1954-62 independence war against France, including Bouteflika.
But traditionally weak and divided opposition and civic groups have called for protests to go on should Bouteflika continue to pursue re-election.
The government has played on fears among many Algerians of a return of bloodshed seen in the 1990s, when an estimated 200,000 people were killed after Islamists took up arms when the military canceled elections they were poised to win.
But the new series of protests have been generally peaceful, apart from scuffles with police on Friday, leaving 183 people injured.
Students gathered in their thousands on Sunday at university faculties, one of them near the Constitutional Council. Students chanted: “No to a fifth term!” and “A free and democratic Algeria!”
Thousands later marched through the city center. A diplomatic source estimated that as many as 70,000 people had massed in Algiers, including a rally at Bab Ezzouar university, the country’s biggest.
“We will not stop until we get rid of this system,” said Aicha, a 23-year-old student, summing up the mood on the streets.
According to witnesses and local television footage, protesters also turned out in their thousands in other cities including Oran and Constantine. Some 6,000 also protested in Paris, where many Algerians live.
By Sunday evening, seven candidates had registered to run against Bouteflika. Opposition groups failed to agree on one candidate, making any campaign an uphill challenge in a country dominated by one party – the FLN – since independence.
Many Algerians eschewed public political activity for years, for fear of trouble from the pervasive security apparatus or out of disillusionment with the lack of change in the leadership.
After the decade-long Islamist insurgency that Bouteflika crushed early in his rule, Algerians generally tolerated a political system leaving little room for dissent as a price to pay for relative peace and stability.
Reporting by Lamine Chikhi, Hamid Ould Ahmed, Hesham Hajali, Ulf Laessing, Tarek Amara, Tom Miles, Raissa Kasolowsky, Geert De Clerq and Stephanie Nebehay; Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Mark Heinrich and David Goodman