Algeria’s presidential succession process is beginning early. The next polls to elect the country’s head of state are not due to take place until April 2014, but the extended absence of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika from Algeria on health grounds means that the political elite in Algiers is already manoeuvring for position.

Bouteflika is convalescing in a Paris hospital having suffered what the state news service reported to have been a stroke. Government officials insist that the president is recovering well. According to the foreign minister, Mourad Medelci, the president continues to give “daily directives” to the cabinet. The prime minister, Abdelmalek Sellal, declared in late May that the president’s ill health would soon be “no more than a bad memory”.

In Algeria, however, few believe this. “People are very cynical about the whole process,” says John Entelis, director of the Middle East studies programme at Fordham University in the US. “They don’t believe they’re being informed about the real situation. Sellal says that Bouteflika is healthy, but everybody is mocking that.”

Poor health

Bouteflika has been in poor health since the end of 2005, when he was treated in the same Paris hospital for what the government said was a stomach ulcer, but which diplomatic communiques that later came to light suggested was in fact stomach cancer.

His visit to Paris has now lasted more than two months and it is clear that the president is in a frail state. Conscious of a growing clamour from the Algerian public and the media for an appearance to prove his good health, Bouteflika was shown meeting with Sellal and army chief of staff, Ahmed Gaid Saleh, in a satellite broadcast on 12 June. But the transmission, in which Bouteflika moved gingerly and did not speak, only cemented assumptions about the president’s condition.

In the months leading up to his latest illness, there had been a growing sense that the ground was being prepared for Bouteflika to stand for a fourth term. In 2011, this seemed an impossibility.

Several prominent government figures had talked openly about political reform plans that would most likely reduce the limit of presidential terms from three to two before the next elections. In a speech last year, Bouteflika himself admitted that his generation had “had its time”. But such talk quietly evaporated as the elections drew ever closer and it seemed that the leader would be in sufficiently good health to stand for re-election.

The real question is how long Bouteflika will survive, and no one knows the answer to that

George Joffe, University of Cambridge

Those plans, tentative as they were, have now been blown out of the water. For the moment, it seems that nothing has replaced them. There have been calls within Algeria for recourse to be made to Article 88 of the constitution, which provides for the president to be removed if he is deemed incapable of doing his job. In this case, elections would be called, while the leader of Le Conseil de la Nation, parliament’s upper house, would rule as interim president. But as long as the government insists that the president is well, none of this can happen. “The real question is how long Bouteflika will survive, and no one knows the answer to that,” says George Joffe, research fellow at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the UK’s University of Cambridge. “We have no visibility on the situation because the Algerian government won’t admit that he’s as ill as he is. It’s a major problem. I wonder very much what’s to come.”

What seems beyond doubt is that Bouteflika will not be a candidate in the 2014 elections. “Even if he survives, he’s not going to be standing again,” says Joffe. “He’s no longer competent.”

In itself, Bouteflika’s long absence in France is not overly concerning. The presidency is a powerful position in Algeria, overshadowing a weak prime minister and an even weaker parliament. It also carries with it the power to rule by decree – a privilege that Bouteflika has frequently employed over the years. But since his illness in 2005-06, the president has cut an increasingly weak figure.

Bouteflika rule

Following his propulsion into power in 1999 with the support of the army, Bouteflika tried hard to free himself from dependence on their patronage. In his own words, he wanted to be the first president to rule with the full powers of the presidency. But after an initial honeymoon period, these ambitions began to founder.

In 2005, he attempted to entice greater foreign investment into the oil and gas sector with the introduction of a new and more liberal hydrocarbons law. A year later, though, it was rolled back in the face of concerted opposition from the country’s conservative elite.

A steady erosion of Bouteflika’s room for manoeuvre followed, culminating in 2010 with the launch of an investigation by the state security service, Departement du Renseignement et de la Securite (DRS), into alleged corruption in the award of contracts by state energy company Sonatrach and other government agencies.

The investigation resulted in the removal of Sonatrach’s top management. In May, interior minister, Noureddine Zerhouni, energy minister, Chakib Khelil and investment minister, Hamid Temmar, were all removed from office.

All were close allies of Bouteflika, and it was their policies that had given shape to the president’s strategy of allowing for a moderate opening up of the economy, while leaving the strategic levers of state, such as the army and the energy sector, untouched.

Influence wanes

“Bouteflika’s influence has waned since the Sonatrach scandal, the sacking of Khelil, Zerhouni and Temmar, and the assassination of [Ali] Tounsi,” says Entelis. Tounsi, the chief of Algeria’s police force, was shot dead in his office in February 2010. He was also a longstanding ally of Bouteflika, although some argue that the two had already begun to grow apart.

In addition to his weakening political position, it is also a long time since Bouteflika’s health has been up to the task of presiding over the day-to-day running of the country. Since his illness in 2005-06, the president’s public appearances have become few and far between. He is now 76 years old and Algeria has already had a few years to get used to the idea that he might not be around much longer.

“I don’t think Bouteflika’s death would cause chaos on any great scale,” says Entelis. “Algeria is prepared for Bouteflika dying. And the army wouldn’t allow it. So I don’t envisage any problems whatever happens.”

What will happen remains unclear. Three possible outcomes are most likely: Bouteflika passes away before the next elections and the transition process begins; a decision is taken to declare Bouteflika unfit to rule and the transition process begins; or the president continues until the scheduled polls in April 2014, and is then replaced. (No one has yet dared to officially rule out a fourth option – that if Bouteflika returns to a decent level of health he may run in the election – although it seems extremely unlikely.)

Each of these scenarios, however, leave unanswered the critical question of who will replace the president. With no clear frontrunners, there are numerous candidates who are vaguely in the frame.

Ahmed Ouyahia, who completed a third term as prime minister in September 2012, and Abdelaziz Belkhadem, another former prime minister, are both believed to have harboured ambitions to run for the presidency. But few believe they have sufficient credibility either with the army or the wider population.

Sellal, the current prime minister, is another possibility, while Ahmed Benbitour, who was briefly prime minister in 1999-2000, has recently declared his ambition to stand. Benbitour may benefit from the fact that he was not in power during the corruption scandals seen over the past 10 years.

Ali Benflis, prime minister between 2000 and 2003, is another outside possibility. Benflis already has a history of running for the presidency: he was defeated by Bouteflika in 2004, winning just 6.4 per cent of the vote.

Mouloud Hamrouche, a former prime minister who ran against Bouteflika in the 1999 elections, is further option.

With the field so open, it is impossible to predict who the next president will be. One thing that is certain is that it will not be an Islamist candidate.

Abderazzak Makri, head of Le Mouvement de la Societe pour la Paix (formerly known as Hamas), has expressed an interest in standing. But the Alliance Algerie Verte, a coalition of his party and two other moderate Islamist parties, won just 5 per cent of the votes cast in parliamentary elections in 2012.

Army candidate

It is also unlikely to be a candidate sponsored by Bouteflika’s own family, as once seemed a strong possibility.

The president’s family remains powerful, but an attempt to throw his brother Said into the political limelight a few years ago came to nothing. The army itself may push a candidate forward. Liamine Zeroual, a former colonel in the DRS, is one name being mentioned.

Whether or not the army/DRS establishment takes an active hand in the process, it is likely to remain the most influential arm of the state. “The only real question is what relationship do the candidates have with the military and the DRS?,” says Entelis.

“There are processes in place that will give the DRS time to ensure that the outcome is one that they want. Either the process will go forward without any outright intervention from the army because they are happy with the outcome, or they will feel uncomfortable with the candidates and field one of their own.”

Key fact

Bouteflika’s most recent visit to Paris has now lasted more than two months

Source: MEED