ALGIERS (Reuters) - Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika wants to push through constitutional reforms before 2014 elections to put an end to the powerful intelligence service’s role as political kingmaker, the ruling FLN party’s chairman said.
Any challenge to the Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS) would amount to a major shakeup in Algeria where observers say the security agency has ruled behind the scenes with members of an FLN elite since independence from France in 1962.
Bouteflika’s move, which will be seen as part of power play between his FLN faction and DRS chief Mohamed Mediene, may decide whether the president runs for a fourth term or, as many expect, steps aside.
Changes at the top of Algerian politics are closely watched - the country is one of Europe’s top energy suppliers and a key regional partner of Washington in combating Islamist militants in the Maghreb.
Amar Saidani, chairman of the National Liberation Front party or FLN, told Reuters Bouteflika was determined to create a “civil society” and limit the DRS’ political influence.
“The DRS will continue to play its role, but it will no longer get involved in politics, including in the political parties, media and justice,” Saidani said at FLN headquarters in Algiers’ Hydra district.
Constitutional reforms would set clear definitions on the roles of the security agency and the army, he added.
“The era of kingmakers is over because Bouteflika’s goal is to build a civil state,” he added.
Analysts say marginalizing the DRS completely may be difficult, and Eurasia Group in a recent report said Bouteflika’s faction may rather seek to “establish a level playing field” with the intelligence services ahead of the election.
The government denies Algeria is run through backroom deals among a party-military elite known by the French term “Le Pouvoir” or the power, pointing to the country’s democratically elected president and parliament.
Five months ago, a stroke put Bouteflika in a Paris clinic. But since his return in July, the veteran of the independence fight has steadily moved to outflank his rivals, analysts say, appointing loyalists to key posts in a recent cabinet reshuffle.
He has already weakened DRS influence by transferring some of the security agency’s powers to the army where one of his loyalists is now chief of staff, analysts say.
Under the constitution, Bouteflika can run again. But since the 2011 “Arab Spring” revolts across the region, Algeria has come under pressure to deliver promised constitutional reforms to show it is strengthening democracy.
In April 2012, Bouteflika said publicly his generation’s time was over, referring to the veteran independence-era leaders who ran the country for five decades.
At the top of the list of expected reforms is a proposed term limit for the president and vice president posts, which if passed, would leave Bouteflika out of the line up.
“He is our candidate, and there is no other candidate for the presidential vote,” Saidani said. But when asked what would happen if Bouteflika refused to run, he said: “It is still too early to speak about this now.”
Saidani said international observers would be invited to monitor the April presidential vote, only the second time this has happened since independence.
Six months before the ballot, Algerians still do not know who their candidates are, even though more than 100 political parties are now active. Most candidates stand little chance of winning in a system still dominated by the FLN.
“The reforms as well as the upcoming election will shut the mouth of those who denigrate us from abroad,” Saidani said. “They will no longer say that Algeria is ruled by generals.”
Reporting By Lamine Chikhi; editing by Andrew Heavens, Tom Pfeiffer and Barry Moody