Tue, Jan 21, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Under an ailing president, what next for Algeria?

After years in power, Abdelaziz Bouteflika has no clear successor, although an aging elite hopes to avoid upheaval

By Lamine Chikhi and Patrick Markey  /  Reuters, ALGIERS and TUNIS, Algeria

Already, Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal’s name is touted as one potential vice president. A technocrat, Sellal managed most day-to-day governing in Bouteflika’s absence last year and is seen by many as a possible “consensus” handover candidate.

Senate Chairman Abdelkader Bensalah, former Algerian prime minister Mouloud Hamrouche and Ali Benflis, who is backed by some powerful factions in the FLN, are other names in the ring.

CONSOLIDATED POWER

“A smooth transition is paramount,” said Geoff Porter, director of North Africa Risk Consulting.

“Although Algeria’s political elite have their policy differences and back different candidates, they agree that the country cannot risk instability at this juncture,” he said.

After his return to Algeria following his stroke and Paris treatment, Bouteflika appeared only a few times in public during convalescence, meeting visiting dignitaries such as the French prime minister.

However, sources say in the last months of last year, Bouteflika moved to solidify his influence by transferring key responsibilities away from the DRS intelligence, to weaken its position, and reshuffling the Cabinet to shore up his allies.

Last week, two more top DRS generals — in charge of domestic security and counterterrorism — and one colonel, were sacked, bringing the number of generals retired to four in less than a year, according to one security source.

Bouteflika’s allies have also pushed for a constitutional amendment to create the position of vice president — allowing Bouteflika associates to campaign for him in case he is too ill. His backers have a majority in the parliament, but it may be too late to get it drafted and passed.

Rumors are rife, but few details emerged in Algeria or France about the president’s health. In announcing his visit to Val de Grace hospital in Paris for checkups it said were planned last year, APS said: “The president’s health is improving certainly and progressively.”

Should Bouteflika become too ill to continue, the current chairman of Senate, Bensalah, who heads the second ruling party National Rally for Democracy, would take over for as long as 45 days until elections.

“It is ridiculous to speak about Bouteflika running for [a] fourth term. The man is unable to rule, the man is ill, but his inner circle continue to say he can run,” said Abderazak Mokri, leader of the moderate Islamist party Movement for the Society of Peace.

“If he was in Paris only for a checkup, why not do it here in Algeria?” Mokri said.

BEYOND BOUTEFLIKA

If Bouteflika steps down or can no longer run for election, the vast North African country is unlikely to slide into upheaval seen in Egypt, Libya or Tunisia, whose leaders were overthrown in 2011 over economic malaise and repression.

After years of centralized state control over the economy, analysts say Algeria is certainly in need of economic reforms, and riots and protests over housing, jobs and opportunities occasionally break out in different regions of the country.

However, the 1990s war that killed an estimated 200,000 people left many Algerians wary of turmoil, and the OPEC country’s huge foreign reserves handed Bouteflika enough of a financial cushion to soothe potential protests over living conditions and jobs.

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