ALGIERS (Reuters) - Algerian lawmakers are expected to vote on Wednesday to lift presidential term limits, a move seen by the OPEC member’s opposition as a ruse to let President Abdelaziz Bouteflika stay in office for life.
Bouteflika, 71, says the proposed change to the basic law would boost democracy in Africa’s third biggest economy. But his opponents call it a ploy to extend his rule beyond the end of his second and final term which finishes in April 2009.
“As with many other potentates elsewhere in the world, he has always wanted to be a president for life,” wrote retired general Rachid Benyelles, arguing that if he stayed in power it would deepen what many see as profound political stagnation.
Opposition politicians in the giant north African Arab country of 34 million have called for the constitution to be respected rather than changed, referring to what they see as the presidency’s dominance of the courts and legislature.
The large majority held by Bouteflika’s coalition in parliament means the changes are almost certain to be approved.
“The articles subject to amendment are violated every day by the political group that is organizing what we must call a putsch,” said the secular Rally for Culture and Democracy party.
“The constitution is being changed into a presidency for life.”
Bouteflika has yet to say whether he wants another term but many expect him to contest elections set for 2009 and continue efforts to rebuild a country gradually regaining stability after a civil war in the 1990s that cost an estimated 150,000 lives.
Algeria is still battling insurgents from al Qaeda’s north African wing, behind sporadic suicide bombings and shootings.
The government also faces discontent over its failure to use an oil revenue windfall to improve the lives of most Algerians, but the weak opposition is in little position to bring change.
Bouteflika’s allies said the proposed constitutional amendment would deepen democratic process, while government daily El Moudjahid said there was a “popular demand” for renewing the president’s mandate.
“Algerians have asked Abdelaziz Bouteflika to continue to make a sacrifice for Algeria,” it said.
For months Bouteflika’s allies have been urging him to go for another term, arguing that there are no other candidates with the same political weight, international connections and skills to preside over a society still traumatized by war.
In lifting term limits, Algeria would be following the path of several other African states that have changed constitutions to allow presidents to extend their rule.
The lower and upper houses of parliament will meet in joint session to approve or reject several amendments to the basic law, which also include measures seen by many as boosting already considerable presidential prerogatives.
The measures are expected to pass because Bouteflika’s ruling coalition has an overwhelming majority in the 389-seat lower house and the 144-seat Senate or upper house.
Bouteflika could have submitted the changes to a referendum but has opted not to, arguing the changes do not alter the basic system of political power and so do not need popular approval.
However, some commentators say the fact it will not be subject to popular endorsement may hurt its legitimacy among a population suffering unemployment and lack of housing and resentful of what many regard as a corrupt political elite.
Editing by Matthew Tostevin