Algeria: Ailing president 'to run in April' -- but will he make it?

Nov. 4, 2013 at 1:26 PM
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ALGIERS, Algeria, Nov. 4 (UPI) -- President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's party, the ruling National Liberation Front, has endorsed his candidacy for an unprecedented fourth term in elections slated for April 2014, but Algerians are wondering whether the ailing, 76-year-old independence veteran will live long enough to run.

The endorsement by the party, known by its French initials FLN, is widely seen as a trial balloon to determine Bouteflika's prospects for another five-year term in the oil-rich North African country where he'll be up against the political weight of the powerful chief of Algeria's intelligence service, Maj. Gen. Mohamed Mediene, his principal political opponent.

Algeria's political future now hinges on the outcome of a behind-the-scenes political battle between Bouteflika's loyalists and the power of Mediene's secretive Department of intelligence and Security, known as the DRS.

"Bouteflika's poor health has ushered Algeria into a transitional period," observed Oxford Analytica. "Had his condition been less serious, a fourth term would have probably been a foregone conclusion.

"However, in the current context, moves to extend his presidential term from five to seven years or for him to stand for a fourth term will not end the uncertainty associated with the possibility of his incapacitation or death."

The forthcoming election battle, whether Bouteflika goes for a fourth term or not, comes as the country is increasingly restive amid the political turmoil that has gripped the Arab world, and North Africa in particular, since early 2011.

Of the four Arab dictators driven from power in the chain of pro-democracy uprisings, three were North African -- Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. All these countries remain in turmoil and face threats from Islamist militants.

Algeria, in fact, was torn by Islamist upheaval almost two decades before its neighbors. It battled militants throughout the 1990s after the military-backed regime scrapped parliamentary elections that Islamist parties were set to win, triggering a bloodbath in which some 150,000 people were slaughtered.

Bouteflika, one of the handful of survivors of the men who led Algeria to independence from France in a grueling 1954-62 war, was elected in 1999 and played a key role in ending the civil war and fostering reconciliation.

These days, Algeria is once again facing the threat of Islamist diehards, the jihadists of al-Qaida of the Islamic Maghreb, who emerged from the civil war and are now spreading their influence across North and West Africa.

Increasingly, many Algerians do not see the ailing Bouteflika, who earlier this year spent 80 days in a French hospital following a major stroke, as the strongman who'll get them through economic woes, political turbulence and pressure for social change.

Bouteflika has favored his younger brother Said as his successor, but he's unlikely to do so because the president faces opposition from within the FLN, and Mediene is dead set against a fraternal succession.

But Bouteflika, despite his poor health, has been striving to consolidate his power base against Mediene, who many see as the most powerful figure in Algeria.

In September he carried out a major Cabinet reshuffle and put close aides into key positions of power, including the ministries of defense and interior, which controls security. These are clearly aimed at undermining Mediene.

The general has responded by intensifying his campaign against high-level corruption, a central element in his political battle to discredit Bouteflika and his allies.

The scandal over $200 million a subsidiary of the Italian Eni oil company allegedly paid in illegal bribes to officials of the state oil monopoly Sonatrach, to secure oil and gas contracts worth $11 billion in 2009, has caused a whirlwind of outrage among Algerians.

One of several bid-rigging cases involving Sonatrach, long controlled by Bouteflika allies, the scandal has "paralyzed decision-making at Sonatrach and could influence the presidential elections," observed energy analyst Borzou Daraghahi.

"The latest allegations about Sonatrach and the amounts involved have enraged Algerians, and raised the issue of business transparency like rarely before, putting the onus on policymakers to take action against corruption."

"Most Algerians expect the outcome of the 2014 election -- if it takes place -- to be decided behind closed doors, and with the winning candidate pre-selected in a deal between ... Bouteflika, his allies in the ruling FLN party and the DRS," observed Oxford Analytica.

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