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Retired Algerian general becomes first official presidential candidate

Ailing incumbent President Bouteflika's intentions remain unknown, though supporters back him for fifth term
Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika voting in local elections in 2017 (AFP/file photo)

A retired Algerian general on Saturday became the first candidate to announce a run for president in April elections, as ailing incumbent Abdelaziz Bouteflika's intentions remain unknown. 

Ali Ghediri, a former defence ministry personnel director, threw his hat into the ring after the North African country on Friday called the much-anticipated election for 18 April, AFP reported.

Bouteflika, 81, who uses a wheelchair and has rarely been seen in public since a stroke in 2013, is due to complete a fourth term in office on 28 April. He is part of a thinning elite of the veterans who fought France in the 1954-1962 independence war and have run Algeria ever since.

Despite his advanced age and poor health, some of his supporters have called for him to stand for a fifth term, but the president himself is yet to make his plans clear.

The North African country, an OPEC oil producer, avoided the major political upheaval seen in many other Arab countries in the past decade but has experienced some protests and strikes, Reuters said. Unemployment, especially among young people, remains high.

The economy has improved over the past year as oil and gas revenues have picked up, allowing authorities to ease austerity measures imposed when they halved between 2014 and 2017. Oil and gas revenues account for 60 percent of the budget and 94 percent of export revenue.

The government has said it wants to diversify the economy away from oil and gas, but there has been resistance from those within the ruling elite to opening up to foreign investment.

By law, would-be candidates now have until 4 March to register with the constitutional court.

Uncertainty over whether Bouteflika will stand for re-election has frozen Algerian politics for months. 

Ghediri was the first to seize the initiative, declaring in a statement to Algerian media that "I have decided to take up the challenge by running in the presidential election".

"This major challenge ... involves questioning, without any taboos, the established order," said the 64-year-old, who retired in 2015. 

Algeria's Bouteflika to seek re-election in 2019, party chief says
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Ghediri has bolstered his profile with a series of prominent media appearances in recent weeks.

In an interview with El Watan newspaper last month he hit out at speculation that the polls might be postponed and Bouteflika's mandate extended, saying he expected the army to stop any such move. 

These comments earned him a rebuke from the defence ministry, which threatened to go to court if rules on the conduct of former military officers were breached. 

Algerian politics is notoriously opaque, and the winner of every multiparty presidential election has been pre-selected by a shadowy elite, beginning in 1995 with victory by retired general Liamine Zeroual.  

The president's brother and special adviser Said has been widely seen as Algeria's de facto ruler since Abdelaziz's stroke, which severely impaired the president's speech. 

Analysts said Bouteflika's announcement of the election date will ease concerns that the vote might be postponed.

"This decision shows that Bouteflika is sticking to the constitution," political analyst Arslan Chikhaoui told Reuters.