Algiers - A key challenger to ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's bid for a fourth term registered Tuesday for Algeria's April election despite other candidates dropping out as fatalism sets in.
Bouteflika, 77, made a rare appearance late Monday to drop off papers for his reelection at the constitutional council, and made his first public remarks since suffering a mini-stroke in April 2013 that has largely removed him from public life.
“I came to officially submit my application in accordance with article 74 of the constitution and the electoral law,” said Bouteflika of the article that removed term limits.
Bouteflika, who was hospitalised three months in Paris last year after suffering the mini stroke, was shown on state television sitting in an armchair, his voice barely audible.
Newspapers pored over the footage and the president's declining health.
“An introduction and expeditious statement by way of weaning (himself out) of 22 months away from the public eye,” wrote Al-Watan French-language daily, noting his “inaudible voice.”
Liberte newspaper went further by asking which doctor gave Bouteflika the “magical” clean bill of health presidential candidates must submit.
Liberte said Bouteflika -- who has ruled over Algeria for 15 years and helped end the oil-rich North African nation's civil war in the 1990s -- gathered four million signatures of support for a fourth term.
“With such popular support, the April 17 presidential election is almost won in advance,” the paper said.
Citing fraud, dozens of opposition candidates have dropped out of the race.
Former prime minister Ahmed Benbitour withdrew his candidacy, saying the vote would be “piracy with legal backing,” while retired general Mohand Tahar Yala said he pulled out because the polls have been “rigged” to secure Bouteflika's fourth mandate.
But former prime minister Ali Benflis, who is seen as Bouteflika's main rival in the vote, submitted his dossier on Tuesday morning, ahead of a midnight deadline.
“I decided to participate, although I understand the motivations and preoccupations of those who are calling for a boycott, and of those who have decided against playing an active role in the politics of our country because they are outraged by the attitudes of scorn, arrogance...,” Benflis said in a statement.
Benflis, who is one of six candidates along with Bouteflika to have registered for the race, insisted that “the credibility of the election lies in a strong, effective and transparent vote.”
Around 100 candidates are estimated to have pulled out of the race while protests against Bouteflika's reelection have taken place nationwide at the behest of a movement called Barakat (Enough).
But analysts believe that Bouteflika will maintain his grip over Algeria in a fourth term.
“He submits his candidacy. He is elected. The administration works for him,” said Rashid Grim, a political analyst.
For a year the government has campaigned on his behalf, saying “Bouteflika represents stability,” Grim told AFP.
“This is the only message that can have an impact on voters.”
Algeria has thus far avoided the Arab Spring turmoil that rocked Libya and Tunisia as well as the instability in Mali, despite sharing long desert borders with all three.
Algeria dates its Arab Spring back to 1988, when pro-democracy protests paved the way for a multi-party system and the birth of a private press.
But four years later, a military-backed decision to cancel elections which Islamists had been poised to win ignited a bloody civil war that would last a decade and kill up to 200,000 people.
In 1999, with the military's support, Bouteflika stood unopposed as the candidate of the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) after all the other candidates withdrew over fears of fraud -- and went on to win his first term in office.