Algeria presidential poll: ‘comical campaign’ for invisible candidate
With Algeria's election campaign in full swing, ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is conspicuous by his absence but remains the firm favourite as high-profile allies criss-cross the country to make his controversial case.
The 77-year-old incumbent, who secured landslide victories in the three previous elections, is too sick to take to the campaign trail, barely leaving home after a minor stroke confined him to hospital in Paris for three months last year.
A frail-looking Bouteflika appeared on state television on March 3, his voice barely audible, to announce that he was seeking a fourth term despite concerns about his capacity to govern.
It was the first time he had spoken in public in two years. Since returning home from Paris, the president has chaired just two cabinet meetings and only rarely appeared in public.
In a very rare demonstration of its size, thousands of people took to the streets of Algiers last Friday, two days before the campaign opened, to call for a boycott of the April 17 election in protest at Bouteflika's candidacy.
But despite sporadic expressions of political dissent and grave doubts about his ability to rule, the president defended his re-election bid in a written message to Algerians.
Abdelmalek Sellal, the former prime minister who stepped down to head Bouteflika's campaign, ruled out any likelihood of the president taking to the hustings himself.
"I haven't heard anyone speak of him taking part in a meeting. Maybe he will make a statement, that's possible," Sellal said in an interview with news website TSA.
Sellal and other Bouteflika allies have been unapologetic about the president's inability to campaign on his own behalf.
"They continue to push the campaign of an invisible candidate without any shame," said political analyst Rachid Tlemcani.
"It's a comical campaign which deserves to be mentioned in the next edition of the world history of elections."
In addition to Sellal, six other senior political figures have been drafted in to champion the president's case on the campaign trail.
Fellow former premier Abdelaziz Belkhadem, who is now special adviser to the president, said Bouteflika "might need a bit of physical rehabilitation that would give him better mobility."
Ahmed Ouyahia, who replaced Belkhadem as premier before stepping down in 2012, said the president "is ill but he is gradually getting better."
- 'Invisible but image everywhere' -
Algerian analyst Rachid Grim said that by getting a powerful entourage behind his re-election bid, the ageing president had "pulled it off."
"He's invisible, but his image is everywhere, and he is represented by seven stand-ins."
Supported by long dominant ruling party, the National Liberation Front, as well as business organisations, Bouteflika faces five challengers.
His main rival is seen as Ali Benflis, who served as prime minister during the president's first term of office from 1999.
Serious doubts about Bouteflika's ability to govern have only fuelled speculation about those backing his re-election, and the prospects for reform in a country where all presidents since independence have been appointed with the army's approval.
As street protests continue to grow, the Algerian leader insisted in his letter to the people that the difficulties linked to his health did not "disqualify" him from power, while admitting that "the heavy responsibilities ... have in part affected my health."
At a campaign rally, Sellal said: "We asked Bouteflika to run, even if his health doesn't allow it, and he responded to our call."
Analysts say that the president's absence from the campaign is unlikely to make any difference in a country where previous elections have been marred by patchy turnout and opposition accusations of fraud.
"Bouteflika is virtually guaranteed re-election," said Tlemcani.
"It's the same actors that organised the previous elections which he won."
Rachid Grim agreed, saying it would take a "miracle" for Bouteflika not to secure a fourth term.