Algerian party, top union join army in seeking Bouteflika exit

ALGIERS (Reuters) – Algeria’s biggest union and an influential party on Wednesday backed an army call for President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to quit in a managed exit plan that was quickly rejected by protesters demanding the overthrow of the entire political elite.

FILE PHOTO: Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika looks at journalists after casting his ballot during the parliamentary election in Algiers, Algeria, May 4, 2017. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra/File Photo

The statement from the National Rally for Democracy (RND), a member of the ruling coalition, came a day after the military – Algeria’s traditional kingmakers – said Bouteflika should be declared unfit for office.

The General Union of Algerian Workers (UGTA), long a staunch supporter of the president, also said it supported the army call for Bouteflika to step down.

The announcements by three pillars of the establishment were a clear signal that the 82-year-old president – who has rarely appeared in public since suffering a stroke in 2013 – has little to no chance of staying in power in the North African country, an oil and gas producer.

But the leaders of five weeks of mass protests fueled by anger over alleged corruption, nepotism and economic mismanagement said the plan still did not go far enough, risking a confrontation with the military.

“Protests will continue… Algerians’ demands include a change of the political system,” Mustapha Bouchachi, a lawyer and activist, told Reuters.

“The implementation of Article 102 (the part of the constitution that covers declaring a president unfit for office) means that the symbols of the system will oversee the transition period and organize presidential elections,” he said.

Protesters have repeatedly said they would reject any orchestrated succession in politics and want a transition which will lead to a government by consensus.

“We want a real democracy not a facade of a democracy,” said postal worker Zakaria Jaziri 26.

Any outright military rejection of demands for a democratic transition could deepen the biggest political crisis since 1992, when generals canceled an election that Islamists were poised to win, triggering a civil war that killed 200,000 people.

“We welcome the army’s initiative but we do not want Bouteflika’s men to govern us until the next election,” said state bank employee Djamel Hadidi, 37.

HIGH STAKES

The army’s powerful chief of staff, Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaed Salah, told officers in a speech broadcast on Tuesday that the solution to the crisis would be the departure of the president on health grounds.

Salah called on the country’s constitutional council to rule whether the president was fit for office. Such a ruling would have to be ratified by members of parliament’s lower and upper house by a two-thirds majority.

Based on the constitution’s Article 102, the chairman of parliament’s upper house, Abdelkader Bensalah, would serve as caretaker president for at least 45 days after Bouteflika’s departure.

The leader of the RND party, Ahmed Ouyahia, urged Bouteflika to resign under Article 102, which also covers presidential resignations.

Even if Bouteflika quits, there is no obvious replacement who could be acceptable to all sides.

For years, rumors have swirled about potential successors, but no single credible candidate has emerged with the backing of the military and the political and security establishment who is not at least 70.

Facing the biggest challenge to his rule, Bouteflika reversed a plan to seek a fifth term, postponed elections and promised to introduce greater freedoms.

But he stopped short of stepping down, infuriating Algerians who want to do away with veterans of the 1954-1962 war of independence against France, military officers and business tycoons who have dominated for decades.

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“Is there a risk of radicalization or confrontation if demonstrators reject the army approach? This is a hypothesis that can not be totally excluded,” said Louisa Dris, professor of political science at Algiers University.

The stakes are high – Algeria is a leading member of OPEC and a top gas supplier to Europe, though so far oil and gas output appears unaffected by the unrest, an International Energy Agency (IEA) official said on Tuesday.

Algeria is also regarded by Western states as a partner in counter-terrorism, a significant military force in North Africa and a leading diplomatic player in efforts to resolve crises in neighboring Mali and Libya.

Writing by Michael Georgy, Editing by Andrew Heavens, William Maclean

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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