One less contender to succeed Algeria’s Bouteflika

Sunday 17/07/2016
A 2008 file picture of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika (R) shaking hands with then-Algerian oil minister and OPEC president Chakib Khelil in the western city of Oran, Algeria.

Tunis - A proposed election law rules out the possibil­ity that Algeria’s former Energy minister Chakib Khelil could succeed ail­ing Abdelaziz Bouteflika as presi­dent of the North African country.

Khelil’s return to Algeria in March, after years of self-imposed exile abroad following accusations of corruption, prompted specula­tion that he planned to seek the presidency.

Members of the opposition inter­preted the submission to the parlia­ment of a proposed election law as indication that the establishment was stepping up work on the suc­cession to Bouteflika and signalling the president probably would not step down before the end of his term in 2019.

Khelil fanned speculation about his presidential ambitions by de­claring he was willing to assume any official position “to serve Al­geria”. His stated ambitions were backed by the fact that he enjoys the trust of Bouteflika and the circle of influential people around him.

Khelil’s return and his subse­quent activities throughout the country were reminiscent of Boutef­lika’s return to Algeria in 1998. Bouteflika also went into exile be­cause of corruption allegations. When he returned, his backers among the ruling elite encouraged the traditional religious establish­ment to support him.

Observers in Algeria noted how Khelil had visited several Islamic shrines upon his return.

It is widely believed that Boutef­lika’s health is a concern for top of­ficials, known in Algeria as Le Pou­voir. Members of the ruling class would like a smooth transition of power into the hands of a faithful successor.

Amar Saadani, a former speaker of parliament and the National Lib­eration Front leader, who is one of the closest aides to Bouteflika, has strongly defended Khelil against graft allegations.

More significantly, Saadani clashed openly with the powerful military intelligence service and its former head Mohamed Mediene, defending Khelil as one of “Alge­ria’s brightest cadres”. This posi­tion was echoed by several political groups loyal to the president.

Many pundits said it was nec­essary to wait for a change in the presidential law to see whether there was a consensus among the ruling establishment about Khelil as a future president.

The draft law text stipulates, among other conditions for eligibil­ity for the presidency, that any can­didate must have resided in Algeria for ten consecutive years before he submits his candidacy. A presiden­tial hopeful’s wife must also be of Algerian nationality and origin.

Khelil, 77, is married to Pales­tinian-American Najat Arafat, who was involved in Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations through the American Taskforce on Palestine. She has links to the family of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The most prominent potential candidates who meet the draft law conditions are former prime min­ister and ex-FLN chief Ali Benflis, who heads opposition group Talaia El Houriat (Freedoms Vanguards); and Ahmed Benbitour, a former prime minister who distanced him­self from ruling circles to rally inde­pendents and civic groups around a common opposition candidate.

Current Prime Minister Abdel­malek Sellal could be the establish­ment candidate if the ruling elites were to fail to forge a consensus around another aspirant, politi­cal watchers said. Sellal has been prominently criss-crossing the country in a series of high-profile trips to inaugurate government projects.

His Kabyle Berber origin could be an asset for Sellal as authorities showed an eagerness to neutralise the growing support of the Move­ment for Berber Autonomy, led by rights activist Ferhat Mehenni.

The bid to revise the conditions of eligibility to presidential elec­tions was part of a package of draft laws, including one banning retired military top officers from com­menting on political issues, that were rushed to the parliament for approval.

Another of the draft laws would force out 14 political parties from 2017’s legislative elections as it would impose a 4% threshold of voter support for parties wishing to field candidates.

“If you put together the moves of the Pouvoir in a short period of time, you can only conclude they are driven by its obsession to pre­pare for the replacement of Boutef­lika,” said Mokrane Ait Larbi, a prominent lawyer and a expert about Algeria’s domestic politics.

“Only God knows when he (Bouteflika) dies but the circles in power do not want to take any chances with that matter and they are moving in earnest to prepare for his replacement,” he told El Khabar daily.

With the exception of former army general Liamine Zeroual, who stepped down before the end of his mandate in 1998, all of Al­geria’s presidents have either died in office or been forced out by a coup.