Algerian president promises major political reforms

ALGIERS Fri Apr 15, 2011 6:24pm EDT

Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika attends the opening session of the Arab League Second Economic Forum in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh January 19, 2011. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih

Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika attends the opening session of the Arab League Second Economic Forum in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh January 19, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Asmaa Waguih

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ALGIERS (Reuters) - Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika promised on Friday to ensure free elections, amend the constitution and end jailing of journalists -- moves aimed at preventing local unrest turning into a national uprising.

Bouteflika, who had not spoken in public for at least three months, said he had decided to amend the constitution "to reinforce representative democracy" in Algeria.

In a 30 minute speech, Bouteflika announced he would change the electoral law in Algeria, which is due to hold the next presidential election in 2014.

"All measures will be taken to ensure free and fair elections including supervision by international observers," Bouteflika, 74, said in the speech broadcast by state-owned television.

Unlike the uprisings which toppled leaders in nearby Egypt and Tunisia, Algeria's protests are localized and have yet to coalesce into a nationwide political movement.

But the growing protests have become a daily occurrence in the capital and a threat to OPEC member Algeria's stability.

"I will urge the parliament to review all the legislative framework," said Bouteflika.

The army canceled elections in 1991 which Islamists under the banner of the Islamic Salvation Front looked set to win, plunging Algeria into a civil war that killed at least 150,000.

Bouteflika also promised a new information law to replace the current one which provides for jail sentences of two to 12 months and fines from 50,000 to 250,000 dinars (about $1,000 to $5,000). The old law has been used to imprison journalists who wrote articles critical of Bouteflika.

Algeria's government strategy so far to deal with the wave of strikes and demonstrations has been to use oil money and give protesters what they want. But commentators say this has encouraged other people to take their demands to the streets.

Political analyst Mohamed Lagab cautiously welcomed Bouteflika's comments. "Acknowledging that political reforms -- and not only social and economic reforms -- will help to solve the crisis is key," Lagab, who teaches at Algiers University, told Reuters.

"But Bouteflika did not give a deadline for the reforms he announced and he did not sack the government yet," said Lagab.

(Reporting by Lamine Chikhi, Editing by David Stamp)

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