ALGIERS- Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s sweeping cabinet changes and a rumoured purge of the military intelligence services indicate Algeria’s ailing president will run for re-election or extend his term, politicians and newspapers say.
This month’s reshuffle replaced a third of Algeria’s ministers, a bold political move by the 76-year-old president, who returned home in July after spending nearly three months in France recovering from a mini-stroke.
It bred speculation that Bouteflika, in power since 1999, is tightening his control over the succession process, despite assumptions that his chronic health problems would rule him out of next year’s election.
Comments to the press by his allies suggest the president may indeed seek a fourth term in office. Ammar Saidani, new leader of the ruling National Liberation Front, said the party was behind the president “if he wanted to extend his mandate or stand again.”
Bouteflika himself has not discounted possible re-election. And the idea of a two-year extension to his existing mandate, which would require an amendment to the constitution similar to one in 2008 that cleared the way for his third term, has been circulating in the press.
But it has been sharply criticised by proponents of a free leadership contest next year. “It seems there will not be a presidential election in 2014,” said Abdelaziz Rahabi, former communications minister in Bouteflika’s first government.
A possible delay to the poll scheduled for next April “will save the head of state an electoral campaign, which he is unable to lead because of his health problems, and will allow him a reprieve to sort out the judicial problems facing members of his entourage,” he added.
Rahabi was alluding, notably, to the arrest warrant the Algerian judiciary issued for Chakib Khelil, a Bouteflika prodigy who ran the energy ministry for a decade until a corruption scandal at state energy giant Sonatrach forced him to resign in 2010.
For the press, this month’s wide-ranging cabinet reshuffle — in which close allies of the president got the top jobs at the interior, justice and foreign ministries — and the reported restructuring of the DRS military intelligence agency, which some consider the real power in Algeria, reflects Bouteflika’s appetite for re-election.
Opposition newspaper Le Soir d’Algerie, citing sources close to Bouteflika, reported him as telling Prime Minister Abdelamalek Sellal and his new deputy defence minister, army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah, of his intention to run again, and ordering them to prepare for his re-election campaign.
But the army on Wednesday denied reports about the reorganisation of the military, amid claims that three key units of the secretive DRS had come under Salah’s command — namely the army’s communications bureau, its central security agency and the judicial police force.
It said in an editorial published in the military’s own newspaper El-Djaish that such claims were “unfounded,” and “part of a desire to cause trouble and mislead public opinion.”
Separately, Sellal announced on September 17 that a report on constitutional revisions had been finalised and submitted to the president, but gave no details on the proposed changes.
Opposition parties are demanding a ceiling to the number of times the president is allowed to run for office. Such a ceiling was scrapped by the constitutional changes introduced in 2008 and ratified by parliament.
Abderezak Mokri, who heads the opposition Islamist party Movement for the Society of Peace, called the idea of extending Bouteflika’s mandate was “unimaginable.”
The Rally for Culture and Democracy, a secular opposition party, has demanded that the constitution’s rarely mentioned Article 88 be invoked, under which power temporarily transfers to the Senate leader if the president suffers a serious and lasting illness.
“The president is sick … and can no longer carry out his duties, including protocol,” said the party’s president Mohcine Bellabas.
Despite such objections, however, most of Algeria’s mainstream political parties are not actively opposing the notion of Bouteflika seeking a fourth term, if his health permits.