Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s second visit to Paris for hospital treatment has reignited speculation the president who oversaw Algeria’s emergence from almost a decade of civil war may be unable to run for re-election in April.
Bouteflika, a Western ally against militant Islamists in North Africa who suffered a stroke last year, flew to France on Jan. 14 for what state news agency APS called a planned checkup, saying his condition was “progressively” improving.
He had been scheduled back on Friday last week, the first day of the election campaign. However, Anis Rahmani, a media owner close to Bouteflika, said on Thursday the president had already returned and one source described his condition as “fine.”
“He is back home 24 hours before the deadline to kick off the campaign. It is a political signal that the president is ready to run [for] a fourth term,” said Rahmani, owner and manager of Ennahar TV.
The ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) party says Bouteflika, 76, is their only candidate for April’s presidential election, in which he would run for a fourth term and almost certainly win due to the nationalist party’s dominant role.
Any potential transition in the major North African energy supplier would come at a delicate time, with neighboring Egypt and Libya deep in turmoil three years after “Arab Spring” revolts that ousted their long-term leaders.
“He simply cannot leave the country now, because of all the regional threats,” Rahmani said. “He cannot quit because the opposition is not ready to rule.”
Gauging Algeria’s opaque politics is complicated, observers say, with a cadre of veteran FLN party leaders and army generals known as “Le Pouvoir,” or “The Power” in French, ruling behind the scenes since independence from France in 1962.
But time is running short: Campaigning began on Friday, and candidates must register for the April 16 and April 17 election before a constitutional deadline in February.
The Algerian leader, who spent months in a French hospital before returning home in July last year, has been quiet and clues seeping out of the ruling elite and business and political circles provide conflicting accounts.
His political opponents say he is too ill to work. Late last year he was visibly tired, two senior security sources said, and his health had deteriorated. However, soon afterward, he was seen in a live appearance receiving his chief of staff.
APS said on Thursday his health had shown “marked improvement.”
Should he step aside, a handover from Bouteflika, who befriended Cold War-era icons like former Cuban president Fidel Castro and former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat over his long career, is likely to be well-managed, analysts say. The FLN party-military elite alliance has vested interests in avoiding instability, they say.
While the president is elected, a Bouteflika successor may be chosen through an internal tussle between his inner circle and the Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS), which has played a kingmaker role since the days of civil war in the 1990s.
A source from the business elite close to the government, who asked not be identified, said Bouteflika plans to run and is expected to appoint two vice presidents, a position now being prepared, to help in his campaigning.
Analysts say some of that may be political positioning by Bouteflika’s allies, to guarantee a strong hand in backroom negotiations with military rivals over any succession.