Algeria's Bouteflika Bows to Protesters in Ruling Out Fifth Term

(Bloomberg) -- Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika postponed next month’s election and said he would no longer seek a fifth term, bowing to 18 days of demonstrations that had threatened to tear the OPEC member apart.

The 82-year-old leader, who returned to Algiers on Sunday following medical treatment in Geneva, said in a letter that presidential elections would be held after a national conference to agree the contours of the next political era. He also promised that a new constitution would be drafted before year-end.

Algeria's Bouteflika Bows to Protesters in Ruling Out Fifth Term

“There won’t be a fifth mandate and it was never on the table as far as I am concerned,” the letter, carried by the official APS news agency, read. Bouteflika admitted that his age and frail health could allow him only to assist in “laying the foundation for a new republic.”

Shortly after Bouteflika’s statement, Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia resigned. Noureddine Bedoui, a former interior minister, was appointed to lead a transitional government, with Bouteflika ally Ramtane Lamamra as his deputy.

Celebrations erupted in the Algerian capital as the news spread, but it wasn’t immediately clear if the concessions would be enough to placate demonstrators who have swarmed the streets for more than two weeks. Their initial demands that Bouteflika drop his bid for re-election have since snowballed into calls for deeper political change.

No sooner had Bouteflika made his announcements, than some accused him of using the election delay to extend his term by stealth.

“Bouteflika wants an indirect extension of his mandate,” ran a headline on the independent news portal Maghreb Emergent.

A successful transition couldn’t be led by an old guard, or “remnants” of the former regime, some protesters interviewed in Algiers said, vowing to keep up the pressure. “It is a half victory for me. I’ll protest next Friday and until his regime goes,” said Hicham, 32, who only gave his first name.

Algeria's Bouteflika Bows to Protesters in Ruling Out Fifth Term

Celebrations or Protests?

Developments in the North African country are being watched closely in Europe and elsewhere: Algeria is not only Africa’s largest energy producer but has been a bulwark against Islamist militancy and migration from other parts of the continent across the Mediterranean.

France, the former colonial power, welcomed Bouteflika’s decision to bow out and make changes.

The prospect of a fifth term had triggered seismic protests in Algeria, presenting the ailing leader and the ruling National Liberation Front party with their most serious challenge since he was first elected in 1999.

Bouteflika’s initial promises to amend the constitution and serve an abridged term if re-elected failed to satisfy protesters frustrated with “le pouvoir,” a cabal of military officers, veterans of Algeria’s war of independence and big businessmen who have governed the oil and gas producer for decades.

Bouteflika has been largely incapacitated and rarely seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013, but was put forward for another term as an understanding on a successor proved elusive.

“The various elements of the ruling elite will now have to come to an agreement on a consensus candidate within a relatively short period of time -- something they have failed to do in the recent past,” said Anthony Skinner, Middle East and North Africa director at Verisk Maplecroft consultancy in London.

Not Enough

While Algeria largely avoided the turmoil that shook its neighbors during the Arab Spring uprisings that swept the region in 2011, its citizens have struggled with rising prices, frustration over alleged corruption and deteriorating living standards.

The downturn in global oil markets since Bouteflika last ran in 2014 has sapped half the country’s foreign reserves and crimped the government’s ability to sustain generous subsidies that had helped to placate a youthful population crying out for jobs.

Algerians who remember the civil war that ravaged their country in the 1990s, respect Bouteflika’s role in ending the conflict and bringing stability. But a youthful population has its eyes on the future.

Ali Benflis, a former prime minister who had joined the swelling protests, welcomed what he called a victory for the Algerian people but warned that more was needed.

“The new cannot be built with the old,” he told Al Hadath Television.

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