February 12, 2009 / 2:49 PM / 10 years ago

UPDATE 3-Algeria's Bouteflika seeks third term as president

(Adds detail, background, analyst)

By Lamine Chikhi

ALGIERS, Feb 12 (Reuters) - Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika launched a long-anticipated bid for a third term in office on Thursday and promised $150 billion to help the country recover from a decade-long civil conflict.

Since Bouteflika took power in 1999, an Islamist insurgency that gripped the north African OPEC member has mostly died out, thanks partly to an amnesty offered to repentant rebels.

A hard core of Al Qaeda-linked fighters continue to battle security forces in mountainous areas east of the capital Algiers and analysts say the war-weary population is still desperate for work, housing and a future.

But few weighty opponents have emerged as challengers and Bouteflika is widely tipped to win election in April and stay in power to 2014.

“I announce my candidature as an independent,” Bouteflika, 71, told thousands of cheering supporters at a rally in central Algiers. “The people have the right to choose in all freedom.”

Parliament last year scrapped a ruling limiting presidents to two terms. Anti-Bouteflika Islamists and secularists greeted the constitutional change with dismay and one opponent complained of a coup in disguise.

Apathy towards politics is widespread and many ordinary Algerians say the country will still be ruled by the same tight-knit political elite, whatever the outcome of the polls.

Supporters say Bouteflika deserves the continued trust of the people for having put Algeria back on the path to stability.

“Top opponents saw the constitutional change ... as a direct sign of support from the decision makers to Bouteflika,” said university professor Mohamed Lakab. “This is why they have decided to boycott — they thought it was ‘game over’.”

Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia said nobody stopped opposition figures from standing and accused them of political manoeuvring.

MASS UNEMPLOYMENT

Re-election could prove the easy part for Bouteflika. The next president faces the challenge of sliding energy revenues and pressure to deal with mass youth unemployment.

He has pledged to boost the non-oil economy to bring jobs and hope to the population, but results have been mixed.

Algeria’s economy remains hampered by cumbersome bureaucracy and poor infrastructure. The government recently tightened rules on inward investment, saying it would help ensure Algerians benefit from the presence of foreign firms.

“When oil prices popped back up in 2004-2006, it looked like a slowing of the liberalisation process,” said Robert B. Parks, a political scientist at the Center of Maghreb Studies in Oran, Algeria. “Now they need clear decisions on how to open up the economy to the private sector.”

On Thursday, Bouteflika promised an ambitious new development programme after an existing project expires next year. Prime Minister Ouyahia has said the new programme would involve projects such as roads, railways and dams.

“I pledge to commit $150 billion towards continuing our policy of socio-economic development,” Bouteflika said in his 40-minute speech at a sports hall thronged by young supporters, party officials and members of development associations.

Dressed in a sober grey suit and black tie, he said he would work to remove obstacles to reform and press ahead with Algeria’s development despite the global economic slowdown.

He indicated that tight state oversight of the economy would continue.

“We will reinforce the role of the state in the economy,” said Bouteflika. “Market economy? Yes. Regulation by the state? Indispensible.”

Before he spoke, a giant screen projected scenes from Bouteflika’s career. Later, blue and white balloons and confetti filled the cavernous sports hall as Algerian rai music boomed over loudspeakers and supporters waved Algerian flags.

Bouteflika said he would pursue a national reconciliation policy that has led thousands of Islamist rebels to disarm.

“We will continue to face up to terrorism, but the doors remain open to those who accept reconciliation,” he said. (Writing by Tom Pfeiffer; Editing by Matthew Tostevin)

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