Algiers - More than 1,000 Algerian judges said they would refuse to oversee the country’s election next month if President Abdelaziz Bouteflika contests it, in one of the biggest blows to the ailing leader since protests started more than two weeks ago.
In a statement, the judges added that they were forming a new association.
Tens of thousands from all social classes have been demonstrating unrelentingly for three weeks against his decision to stand in April’s election, rejecting a stale political system dominated by veterans of an independence war against France that ended in 1962.
The 82-year-old president has rarely been seen in public since a stroke in 2013. Last April, he appeared in Algiers in a wheelchair.
Ailing Bouteflika returns defiant
Abdelaziz Bouteflika arrived home from Geneva on Sunday, signalling that the Algerian president intends to push ahead with his bid for re-election in the face of mass demonstrations demanding he step aside.
Bouteflika's decision to run for a fifth term has triggered seismic protests in the North African OPEC member, presenting the 82-year-old leader and ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) party with their most serious challenge since his election in 1999.
His promises to amend the constitution and serve an abridged term if re-elected in the April 18 ballot have failed to satisfy protesters frustrated with "le pouvoir" , a cabal of military officers, veterans of Algeria's war of independence and big businessmen who have governed the oil and gas producer for decades.
In a statement released hours before Bouteflika was discharged from a Geneva hospital and rushed to the airport, the FLN said it was working with all political groups to find a way out of the crisis while preserving the national interest, hinting that the ruling elite was looking to appease the street without unsettling the political structure.
In another indication authorities were preparing to respond to nationwide demonstrations, which began on Feb. 22 and have drawn in ever larger numbers, the powerful military chief of staff General Ahmed Gaid Salah struck a conciliatory tone.
Salah said the military and the people "are partners in one destiny."
"The president's arrival or lack thereof changes nothing," Zubida Assoul, leader of the small opposition Union for Change and Progress said in live comments on Hadath television network. "What all of the Algerian people are awaiting is for the authorities to declare their response to the people."
Bouteflika has been largely incapacitated and rarely seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013. Swiss media reported in recent days that his health was deteriorating.
The official APS news agency confirmed Bouteflika had returned after medical checks in Geneva. Live images showed the president's plane and motorcade, but he has yet to appear in public.
While Algeria largely avoided the turmoil that shook its neighbors during the Arab Spring uprisings, its citizens have struggled with rising prices, frustration over alleged corruption and deteriorating living standards since oil prices tumbled from over $100 a barrel in 2014, the last time Bouteflika ran for office.
The downturn in global oil markets has since sapped half the country's foreign reserves and sharply crimped the government's ability to sustain a generous subsidy system that had helped to placate a youthful population crying out for jobs.
A member of the president's campaign team, Faysal Bousedraya, said in comments to Hadath television that Bouteflika would not yield to pressure from the streets - nor from rivals in the military establishment - and would leave the presidency on his own terms and in line with his earlier promises to amend the constitution and call early elections.
"I don't think that anybody is counting on either the military or the FLN to lead a transition," said Hannah Rae Armstrong, an analyst at International Crisis Group.
"You might hear isolated calls for the military, and some have come from political spheres, but that's certainly not what the protesters are asking for and its not what they want."
Traders and workers staged a strike on Sunday in Algiers and other cities. Shops in the capital were closed and train services suspended without explanation, residents said.
“We have not benefited from oil money because of corruption and mismanagement. Things must change for the better of our loved ones,” said Yazid Hamimi, a 57-year-old bank employee.
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.
“The current system is unable to provide jobs,” said Farid Kahil, 27, who is unemployed.
The oil ports of Skikda and Bejaia felt the effect of the strike but exports were not affected, according to port staff.
In 2011, as the “Arab Spring” uprising toppled autocrats in the region, Bouteflika managed to remain in power mainly because Algeria, an oil and gas producer, had enough foreign reserves to contain frustrations.
Older Algerians haunted by a devastating civil war in the 1990s tolerated crackdowns on dissent in exchange for stability.
Now, some have appeared at demonstrations to demand reforms.
“We need a new generation to govern us and secure a better future for our children,” said pensioner Ahmed, 63.
But others were more cautious.
“Change has to be peaceful, Bouteflika must leave but without violence. Otherwise we will pay the price,” said Omar Ghiles, 60, a retired Arabic teacher.
Is change coming?
Cracks are appearing in what has been described as “the fortress” around the elderly ruling elite, with a growing number of Bouteflika’s long-time supporters, including FLN members, joining the peaceful rallies urging him to step down.
“Bouteflika’s system is over,” said a commentator on Ennahar, which is close to the president’s inner circle.
As if to lay the groundwork for change, the top Algerian party backing the beleaguered chief of state broke its silence Sunday over massive demonstrations demanding the end of the regime, saying it’s ready to work with all parties to end the crisis.
Army Chief of Staff Ahmed Gaid Salah added his voice, saying Sunday that the army and the people “have the same vision of the future.”