Algeria’s leader seen extending his tenure

ALGIERS — Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika replaced the prime minister with one of his staunch backers in order to revise the constitution and extend his stay in power until 2014, analysts say.

Bouteflika loyalist Abdelaziz Belkhadem took over from Ahmed Ouyahia as prime minister on Thursday and said his priority was to amend the constitution and raise salaries.

Analysts had predicted the departure of Ouyahia, who was reluctant to endorse the constitutional changes.

Belkhadem’s National Liberation Front (FLN) and Ouyahia’s Democratic National Rally (RND) are the main political forces in the government.

Bouteflika says Algeria’s constitution is ill-suited to the needs of a society emerging from an armed Islamic insurrection that lasted over a decade and killed 200,000 people.

In January, Belkhadem proposed extending the length of the presidential mandate from five to seven years and abrogating a two-term limit.

Analysts said his apparent determination to allow Bouteflika the chance of a third term from 2009 suggested the president, who is recovering from illness, was strong enough to contemplate more years in power.

“A third term, this is what is at stake — the president wants to go beyond his second and last term,” said Ali Djeri, editor of top-selling newspaper El Khabar.

“I know that the new prime minister will hike salaries in the coming weeks and amend the constitution next September. This is not good for Algeria’s democratic image.” Other observers said the constitutional revision would also entrench Belkhadem’s FLN and make sure it stayed in power if the ailing 68-year-old Bouteflika had a relapse.

Bouteflika was flown to a Paris hospital in April and December for what Algerian officials said was treatment for a stomach ulcer. Some, however, suspect he has cancer.

Analysts noted that the planned constitutional changes would introduce the position of vice president.

“The ideal scenario for the FLN is to have Bouteflika president and Belkhadem vice president. This scenario is a nightmare for reformers,” said political analyst Larbi Zouek.

Algeria is struggling to reform a Soviet-style economy and has undertaken steps to privatise banks and other firms, but red-tape, bureaucracy and corruption still deter foreign investors.

The country attracted $1.5 billion in foreign direct investment in 2005, down from $2 billion in 2004.

“Who cares about amending the constitution? Not the man on the street who is asking for more houses, jobs, better education, a decent future,” said Zouek. “The gap between the people and the decision-makers won’t be filled as long as politicking continues to be top priority.” Many Algerians are unhappy about living conditions and show it through repeated strikes by teachers, vets, doctors and workers who claim their jobs are threatened by privatisations, which Ouyahia was determined to push through.

He had resisted demands by politicians, the media and trade unions to raise salaries, arguing that the economic climate was not healthy enough.

But Belkhadem has said he will increase salaries in the country, where record high oil prices have swollen foreign exchange reserves to $63 billion.

“I am expecting economic reforms to be frozen for some time,” said Djeri. “They [conservatives] think you can do what you want as long as you do have money, and right now they do have a lot of money.”

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