by Beatrice Khadige
by Beatrice Khadige
ALGIERS, May 20, 2013 (AFP)
Official silence about the health of Algeria’s ailing leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika, hospitalised in France last month, is feeding the rumour mill over presidential elections due in less than a year.
Calls have grown in the Algerian media for the constitution’s rarely mentioned Article 88 to be applied, according to which, if the president is incapacitated, power temporarily transfers to the Senate leader.
Bouteflika was flown to Paris for treatment at the Val-de-Grace military hospital on April 27 after suffering a mini-stroke, and no pictures of him have appeared since, despite officials insisting that he is well.
Ali Yahia Abdennour, a veteran opposition leader, called on Monday for Bouteflika to step down, saying his illness made his retirement after 14 years in power “essential”.
“The fight for the succession is open, but everything is blocked. No initiative has been taken,” the 92-year-old lawyer and human rights activist said in an interview with popular Algerian daily El Watan.
Before Bouteflika’s latest illness, supporters within the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) had made known their desire to see the president seek a fourth term in the election scheduled for next April.
But now there are signs that the succession race has begun, at least unofficially, with several people declaring themselves candidates in recent weeks, despite having slim chances of victory.
Those mentioned as serious potential candidates in the media, taking account of the army’s traditional role in deciding who leads Algeria, include economist Ahmad Benbitour, former premier Ahmed Ouyahia and his successor, Abdelmalek Sellal, appointed last year.
The president’s condition remains unknown, with official sources only giving indirect information, in the form of strident denials, after the seizure of two opposition newspapers for reporting that Bouteflika had lapsed into a coma last Wednesday.
The Algiers public prosecutor accused their chief editor, Hichem Aboud, of “undermining state security” by making “unfounded” comments to foreign media.
The communication ministry said the information published in Aboud’s French-language daily Mon Journal and Arabic Djaridati, on the “deterioration” of the president’s health, was “totally false”.
Tahar Benbaibeche, the head of opposition party El-Fadjr el-Jadid, said Algeria had never known a situation like the current one in its 50 years since independence.
“The absence of the president of the republic has caused paralysis among the ruling institutions. Parliament, with its two chambers, is no longer functioning,” he added.
But others, including the far-left workers party, have insisted the country’s institutions are working as normal, while Bouteflika’s FLN party, which has ruled since independence, is treading cautiously.
“Either the president will be able to continue his mission or he won’t, and when that moment comes we will be in a new situation,” said FLN spokesperson Kassa Aissi.
In what is seen as further proof that a presidential campaign is already unofficially under way, press reports emerged in the weeks before Bouteflika’s hospitalisation of corruption scandals involving people close to him.
His brother Said, a presidential adviser, was among those mentioned, as was former energy minister Chakib Khelil, who has been implicated in a corruption scandal a Algeria’s state-run energy giant Sonatrach.
On the ground there are growing signs of absent leadership, with health sector strikes seriously affecting the country’s hospitals, and thousands of unemployed Algerians, particularly in the underdeveloped south, demanding jobs and better housing.
And on Monday, state media reported that hydrocarbons exports, which account for 97 percent of total exports, fell 9.0 percent between January and April this year, compared with the same period in 2012.