ALGIERS - Algeria's Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who is to seek a fourth presidential term in an April election, helped to end a devastating civil war and contain Arab Spring protests.
ALGIERS – Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who is to seek a fourth presidential term in an April election, helped to end a devastating civil war and contain Arab Spring protests.
One of the few remaining veterans of the war of independence against France, the 76-year-old first came to power in 1999, but has been dogged by ill health and corruption scandals.
He has also never freed himself from the pervasive control of the unelected military, despite being determined to roll back its power and that of intelligence leaders who have dominated Algerian politics since independence.
“I’m not three quarters of a president,” he said after being elected in 1999, addressing critics who saw him as another puppet of the army chiefs.
But despite his efforts to reduce their influence, the army and the DRS intelligence agency are still widely considered to be the real power in Algeria.
The army has chosen all of the country’s post-independence leaders — and Bouteflika was no different.
With the military’s support, he stood unopposed in 1999 as the candidate of the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) after all the other candidates withdrew, citing fears of electoral fraud.
A dapper figure known for wearing a three-piece suit even in baking Saharan conditions, Bouteflika was credited by many Algerians with helping end the murderous civil war in the 1990s that killed at least 150,000 people.
The military-backed government’s decision to cancel elections in 1991 which an Islamic party had been poised to win sparked a decade of appalling bloodletting.
Islamist insurgents attacked both the military and civilians amid allegations of shocking abuses by both sides.
Bouteflika proposed an amnesty for rebels who laid down their arms and twice secured public endorsement for “national reconciliation” through referendums.
Major gamble pays off
The first, in September 1999, was a major gamble but paid off, leading to a sharp decrease in violence that helped propel Bouteflika to a second term in 2004.
The resignation shortly afterwards of Mohamed Lamari, a Moscow-trained former army chief and key proponent of eradicating the armed Islamists during the civil war, was a step forward in curbing the military’s power.
And the death in 2007 of General Smain Lamari, a close ally of the shadowy intelligence chief Mohamed “Tewfik” Mediene, the powerful hidden force in Algerian politics, was thought to further strengthen Bouteflika’s hand.
But he never succeeded in neutralising Mediene, despite steps to emasculate the military intelligence agency in 2012 alongside sweeping cabinet changes.
Bouteflika began a third term in 2009 following a constitutional amendment allowing him to stand again.
His supporters argue that under his stewardship public and private investment has created millions of jobs and dramatically lowered unemployment.
But a lack of opportunity continues to drive many Algerians abroad, often illegally, as youth unemployment remains high despite windfall oil revenues.
When the Arab Spring burst into life in January 2011, Algeria witnessed deadly social unrest, and a month later Bouteflika acceded to an opposition demand, lifting a 19-year state of emergency.
To head off further unrest he announced piecemeal political reforms, including boosting the role of independent parties.
But these reforms won little support from the opposition, and legislative elections in May 2012 saw the FLN tighten its control of parliament.
Bouteflika’s third term in office has been dogged by speculation about his health, and even rumours he had died, after he underwent surgery in Paris in 2005 for a stomach ulcer.
Bouteflika was hospitalised in France again in April last year after a mini-stroke, spending three months recovering and chairing just two cabinet meetings in 2013.
Despite his ill-health, in November the FLN named him as its candidate in the presidential election due in April.
Bouteflika never married and has no children.