By Lamine Chikhi
ALGIERS (Reuters) - More than two dozen Algerian political parties have given their support for a fourth term for President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has yet to announce whether he will run again just two months before the election.
Bouteflika, 76, suffered a stroke early last year before returning to work amid speculation over his ability to seek re-election in Algeria, a key gas supplier to Europe and a U.S. partner against Islamist militants in North Africa.
Allies in the ruling FLN party say Bouteflika is their only candidate as the man who helped bring stability to Algeria after a civil war in the 1990s. But the deadline to officially register his candidacy is March 4, according to electoral law.
The list of Bouteflika's backers for re-election expanded this week, and now includes two ruling parties FLN and RND, 26 smaller parties led by transport minister Amar Ghoul, most of the country's unions, and Rabah Brahimi, of the FDL party.
Most of those are political movements already allied with the FLN, a signal Bouteflika's backers may be strengthening their position before his official announcement.
Should he announce he will run again, Bouteflika, who has governed Algeria since 1999, will almost certainly win due to the FLN nationalist party's dominant role and his backing from the party's machinery and its allies.
Opposition parties are still weak and most Algerians have little appetite for upheaval after the civil war with Islamist militants that killed around 200,000 in the 1990s.
"I will vote for him dead or alive because he has done so much for the country," FDL's Brahimi told a TV program in comments, that surprised Algerians.
Bouteflika returned home few weeks ago from a visit to a Paris hospital for check-ups, fuelling speculation he may be preparing to step side and pass on to a successor, such as his current Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal.
The Algerian leader who has made few public appearances since returning after his stroke, met for two hours on Sunday with the new Tunisian Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa, according to state news agency APS.
CURBING THE GENERALS?
If he steps aside or cannot run, his successor to run for election will likely be chosen in backroom negotiations between Algeria's political elite and military intelligence who have governed behind-the-scenes since 1962 independence.
A possible handover of power by Bouteflika has raised uncertainty in Algeria at a turbulent time for North Africa, with Egypt and Libya still struggling through transitions after uprisings ousted veteran autocrats in 2011.
One source from Bouteflika's inner circle told Reuters on Monday that "the apparatus has been set in motion", to confirm that the aging leader will run despite a poor health.
But observers say the head of the DRS military intelligence, Mohamed Mediene, who long played a kingmaker role in the internal struggles of Algerian politics, is no longer in such a strong position to counter Bouteflika.
Sources say Bouteflika's camp has moved to reduce the influence of the DRS by sacking or transferring top intelligence generals in recent months, to curb Mediene.
One of Bouteflika's campaign slogans is: "Civilian state versus military state."
Observers also pointed to some of the first openly critical comments about the DRS chief from FLN party leader Amar Saidani on Monday as a signal of Bouteflika's push to curtail Mediene's influence over Algerian politics.
"He is no longer in a position to say yes or no to Bouteflika's candidacy in the next presidential election," Saidani said, adding that the DRS chief "should have resigned after a series of failures".
(Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Alison Williams)
- Politics & Government