Algeria’s opposition parties rallied several thousand supporters on Friday to call for a boycott of next month’s election and to reject Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s run for another term after 15 years in power.
Bouteflika, a 77-year-old veteran of the country’s independence war, registered for the April 17 ballot despite suffering a stroke last year that opponents say has left him unfit to govern for another five years.
Chanting: “Boycott” and “the people want the regime out,” about 5,000 demonstrators packed a Algiers sports stadium where Islamist leaders and secular parties denounced Bouteflika’s bid and called for reforms to a political system they see as corrupt.
Friday’s rally was a rare event at the North African oil producer and OPEC member, where critics say rival clans of National Liberation Front (NLF) party elites and army generals have dominated politics behind the scenes since 1962, when Algerian gained independence from France.
“The people here are the people who have been excluded, who have been put aside, but this is the real Algeria,” Mohsen Belabes, a leader with the Rally for Culture and Democracy party, told cheering crowds. “The regime will collapse, but Algeria will survive.”
Yet with the backing of the powerful ruling NFL, army factions and business elites, Bouteflika is almost assured victory, even though he has rarely spoken or been seen in public since his illness.
Bouteflika’s rare public appearances have generated doubts about how he will campaign, how he will govern if still recovering and what happens if forced to step down after winning.
After the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings across North Africa, Bouteflika ordered heavy spending from Algeria’s oil earnings on housing, public services and other basic infrastructure to counter any social unrest.
Despite the uprising, opposition parties remain weak and divided in a country where memories of a 1990s war with armed Islamist militants are painfully fresh, leaving many wary of instability.
At Friday’s rally, rival Islamist and secular party supporters heckled and chanted at each other across the stadium in a reminder of splits between the Rally for Culture and Democracy and Islamist party the Movement for the Society of Peace, who have been rivals for years before both calling for the boycott.
The appearance of Ali Belhadj, a Islamist hardliner from the banned Islamic Salvation Front, further stoked divisions in Friday’s crowd.
Six opposition parties said they will not participate in the election, which Bouteflika’s critics believe is tilted in favor of his FLN and Algeria’s ruling political elites.
“Algeria today is not a kingdom, it is a private property,” Abdullah Jaballah of the Islamist El Adala party told the rally. “How can a man who cannot even serve himself serve Algeria?”
Algeria’s election and any potential transition will be closely watched by Western powers who have relied on Bouteflika in their efforts against militants in the Maghreb.