Middle East

Algeria's Bouteflika, ailing but still president

Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika casts his ballot during the presidential election in Algiers April 17, 2014. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

ALGIERS: Algeria's Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who won a fourth presidential term on Friday with nearly 82 percent of the votes cast, was victorious despite frail health preventing him from even campaigning.

The ailing 77-year-old had to vote from a wheelchair on Thursday after not appearing in public since May 2012.

His decision to seek a new mandate after being in power for 15 years had sparked both derision and criticism from those who questioned his ability to rule after he had a mini-stroke last year.

However, Bouteflika still remains popular with many Algerians who credit him with helping to end a devastating civil war and contain Arab Spring protests.

A veteran of the war of independence against France, Bouteflika first came to power in 1999, but was dogged in his third term by ill health and corruption scandals.

He has also never freed himself from the pervasive control of the military, despite being determined to roll back its influence and curb the powers of its intelligence heads who have dominated politics since independence.

"I'm not three quarters of a president," he said after being first elected in 1999, addressing critics who saw him as another puppet of the military.

Despite 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.

Before polling day, Bouteflika promised constitutional changes that would create a "broad democracy" if he was re-elected.

A dapper figure known for his three-piece suit even in baking Saharan conditions, Bouteflika is respected by many for his role in ending the 1990s civil war that killed at least 150,000 people.

The military-backed government's decision to cancel elections in 1991 which an Islamist party had been poised to win sparked the decade of 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.

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 2013.

Bouteflika's third term in 2009 followed 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.

He also dished out pay rises and announced piecemeal political reforms, including boosting the role of independent parties.

But the initiatives won little opposition support, and legislative elections in May 2012 saw the FLN tighten its control of parliament.

In April last year Bouteflika was rushed to hospital in France after suffering a mini-stroke, and spent three months recovering. 

Despite appearing only rarely on state television because of his frail physical condition, he still remained the front-runner in the election nearly two years after stating that "my generation has served its time".





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