By Lamine Chikhi
ALGIERS (Reuters) – More than 1,000 judges said they would refuse to oversee Algeria’s election next month if President Abdelaziz Bouteflika contests it, in one of the biggest blows to the ailing leader since the start of protests now in their third week.
In a statement on Sunday, the judges added that they were forming a new association “to restore the gift of justice”. Bouteflika returned to Algeria on Sunday after undergoing medical treatment in Switzerland.
“We announce our intention to abstain from … supervising the election process against the will of the people, which is the only source of power,” said the judges.
Judges should join an effort to “declare that we are the people”, the judges said in a statement.
The 82-year-old Bouteflika faces the toughest fight of his 20-year-old rule, following a tenure in which he became the north African country’s most powerful president in 30 years.
Algerians from all social classes have rejected his plan to secure a fifth term in April elections, a move protesters feel would perpetuate a stale political system dominated by veterans of an independence war against France that ended in 1962.
“Bouteflika is back, we delivered a message, we need a response, and we need a response now,” pharmacist Mouloud Mohamed, 29, told Reuters.
The secretive military-based establishment known to Algerians as “le pouvoir” (the powers-that-be) appears to have stood aside while the demonstrations have taken place.
In Algiers, tens of unionists staged a protest rally outside the headquarters of the main union, UGTA, calling on its leader Abdelmadjid Sidi Said, a Bouteflika ally, to resign.
NO CLEAR REPLACEMENT
The veteran head of state has rarely been seen in public since a stroke in 2013. Last April, he appeared in Algiers in a wheelchair.
Young Algerians are desperate for jobs and angry about unemployment and corruption, and complain that their leaders still dwell on the victory over France instead of improving living standards for the future.
In the clearest indication yet that the generals sympathize with protesters, the chief of staff said the military and the people had a united vision of the future, state TV reported. Lieutenant General Gaed Salah did not mention the unrest.
His ruling FLN party urged all sides to work together to end the crisis and promote national reconciliation, Ennahar TV said. But some of its members have quit and supported the demonstrations.
Even if Bouteflika is forced from office, there is no clear replacement, raising the strong possibility that the ruling elite, dominated by veterans of the war of independence against France and their allies, will stay in place.
For years, rumors have swirled about potential successors, but no one credible has emerged who has the backing of the army and the elite and is not at least 70.
(Reporting by Lamine Chikhi; Writing by Michael Georgy, Editing by William Maclean)