ALGIERS (Reuters) - Several thousand supporters of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika rallied on Saturday to support his re-election bid in a show of strength by those who portray him as key to stability in the North African country.
Bouteflika, 77, has registered his candidacy for the April 17 election in which he is almost certain to win another five-year term despite questions over his health and ability to govern since he suffered a stroke last year.
Algeria’s election comes at a delicate period in the region where neighboring Libya, Egypt and Tunisia are still overcoming the instability that followed the 2011 “Arab Spring” uprisings that ousted their long-term rulers.
At a rally at La Coupole stadium in Algiers, popular music blasted out while students wearing Bouteflika T-shirts danced, gave speeches and broadcast a documentary of the president’s life just days before the official start of campaigning.
“The Arab Spring is a mosquito against which we shut the door of our country. If it tries to get through the window, we’ll spray it with insecticide to kill it off,” said Abdelmalek Sellal, who resigned as prime minister this week to run Bouteflika’s campaign.
With the backing of the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) party, army factions and the union, Bouteflika faces little serious challenge from opposition parties, some of which are calling for a boycott of the election.
While presidents are elected, since independence from France in 1962, observers say Algerian politics has been dominated by a clan of powerful FLN veterans, business leaders and army generals who have tussled for influence in backroom deals.
Bouteflika’s rare appearances since the stroke that put him in a Paris hospital for three months have left doubts about his ability to campaign, and questions about what happens if he falls ill should he be re-elected.
Opposition members, including figures from the secularist party Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) and the Islamist Movement for Peace and Society (MSP), believe Bouteflika’s decision ends any fair competition in the election.
About 100 members of a new movement called Barakat, or “Enough” in Arabic, on Saturday also held a sit-in demonstration in downtown Algiers against Bouteflika’s re-election bid.
Large-scale political protests are rare in Algeria, and the police have stopped several small opposition rallies since Bouteflika announced his candidacy.
Their own experience battling Islamists in the 1990s - a conflict that killed around 200,000 people - has left many Algerians wary of a return to any major instability.
After the Arab Spring revolts, the government spent heavily from the country’s foreign reserves - now around $200 billion - on housing and other public expenditure in an attempt to sooth over any social tensions inspired by uprisings elsewhere.
But unrest over jobs, services and economic opportunities are common in Algeria, and the country still needs reforms to its economy after years of centralized state controls and restrictions on foreign investment. It is heavily reliant on oil and gas, which account for about 97 percent of its total exports.
Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Susan Fenton