Algeria’s Bouteflika, a survivor despite ailing health

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President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, designated Saturday by the ruling National Liberation Front to stand for a fourth term in 2014, helped end Algeria’s civil war and contain Arab Spring protests.

One of the few remaining veterans of the independence war against France, the 76-year-old first came to power in 1999.

However, he has been dogged by ill health in recent years and by corruption scandals implicating members of his inner circle.

The man with the keys to the North African nation’s vast energy wealth has been determined to roll back the power of the military, which has played a decisive role in 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.

However the secretive “pouvoir,” as the security services are known, and the DRS intelligence agency in particular, are still considered by some to be the real power in Algeria.

The army has chosen all of Algeria’s post-independence leaders and Bouteflika was no different.

With its support, he was elected in 1999 as the ruling National Liberation Front’s (FLN) candidate.

He was also the sole contestant, after the other six withdrew, charging that the election would be fraudulent.

Known for wearing a three-piece suit and tie even in the oppressive Saharan heat, Bouteflika is seen by many Algerians as a father figure who helped end the civil war, which killed at least 150,000 people from 1992.

The military-backed government’s decision to cancel elections that year -- which an Islamic party had been poised to win -- sparked a decade of appalling bloodletting.

Bouteflika proposed an amnesty for rebels who laid down their arms and twice secured public endorsement through referendums for his plans for “national reconciliation.”

The first referendum, in September 1999, was a major gamble but it paid off, leading to a sharp decrease in violence often cited during the campaign that gave Bouteflika a second term in 2004.

He began a third term in 2009 following a constitutional amendment allowing him to stand again.

Bouteflika’s 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 stubbornly high despite oil revenues.

When the Arab Spring erupted in January 2011, Algeria witnessed deadly social unrest, and a month later Bouteflika acceded to an opposition demand, lifting a state of emergency that had been in force for 19 years.

He also announced piecemeal political reforms, including boosting the role of independent parties, but the moves won little support from the opposition.

Bouteflika’s presidency has been dogged by speculation about his health, and even rumours that he had died after surgery in Paris in 2005 for a bleeding stomach ulcer.

The Algerian leader is unmarried and has no children.

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