By Lamine Chikhi
ALGIERS (Reuters) - Eight months after Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika suffered a debilitating stroke, his allies are promoting constitutional changes including a new vice presidency, which may let the ageing independence veteran run for a fourth term.
That would put off an answer to one of the enduring questions in North Africa: who will replace Bouteflika, 76, as leader of one of the principle allies of the West against Islamist militancy.
Bouteflika has ruled Algeria since 1999, credited by his supporters with drawing the country out of a civil war that killed 200,000 people, and restoring civilian rule in a major OPEC oil and gas supplier to Europe.
He has been silent on whether he will seek a fourth term and rarely seen in public since returning from treatment in France in July. Detailed questions about the state of his health have gone mostly unanswered.
In April he suggested it was time for the old guard to move aside for new leaders: "Our generation is over."
But Algeria's ruling FLN party has nevertheless touted him for weeks as their official candidate, and his allies have started outmaneuvering rivals in negotiations between FLN cadres and military elites who wield real power.
Rivalry between the military and civilians for behind-the-scenes influence has been a central feature of Algerian political life since independence. During the 1990s, the military seized power after Islamists were poised to win a presidential election, leading to civil war.
Bouteflika may believe he still needs a fourth term to guarantee political changes that leave civilians, not generals, in charge, an FLN source told Reuters, explaining the president's thinking.
A proposed a package of constitutional reforms is being interpreted as a signal of his intention to run again. The details of the reform package have not been fully disclosed, but Bouteflika's allies say it will contain clauses that limit the army's role in politics.
Among the other changes, adding a new post of vice president would allow Bouteflika to run again despite his health, and possibly make the question of succession less cloudy.
"If Bouteflika is recovering from a stroke and really wants to run for a fourth term, he will definitely need a vice president to back him and probably campaign on his behalf," said Nouredine Boukrouh, a former Bouteflika minister.
"The new constitution will include the position of a vice president to allow Bouteflika continue to rule, so that if his condition deteriorates, the vice president will do the job."
Eurasia Group analyst Riccardo Fabiani agreed that without a the creation of a vice presidency, the president would probably be unable to run again, while his health "remains a wild card".
It would not be the first time the Algerian constitution was rejigged before an election to let Bouteflika run again. In 2008, Algerian lawmakers lifted presidential term limits, a measure criticized by opposition parties as an attempt to keep Bouteflika in power. He won a third five-year term in 2009.
The new package of reforms is likely to restore limits of two five-year terms for future presidents, although this restriction would not apply to Bouteflika.
Restoring term limits "would be a signal that we are going in the right direction, in the direction of democracy," a political leader who participated in talks with the government over constitutional changes told Reuters.
The proposed constitutional reform package is still with the president's office. If he pushes it forward it would go to parliament, where the FLN and its allies hold a majority.
Some opponents are angry at the attempt to change the rules: "We are against amending the constitution before the 2014 presidential election," said Djilali Sofiane, leader of a new party called Jil Jadid. "It will pave the way for the president to get a fourth term."
However, others may not complain too vociferously. Mohamed Ferrad, a senior member of an anti-Bouteflika group that includes 14 opposition parties and political leaders, said the opposition was not opposed to Bouteflika running for another term, although he should publish his medical records first.
"What Bouteflika wants above all, and what he shares with other decision-makers even if they are opposed to his policies, is stability," said Geoff Porter, president of North African Risk Consulting.
"Bouteflika has long complained that he is a three-quarters president and he needs the office of the vice presidency in order to fully realize the potential of the executive."
ARMY VS. CIVILIANS
After the end of Algeria's war, Bouteflika restored civilian rule in principle, but he has never succeeded in curbing the influence of generals, especially the DRS military intelligence service and its powerful chief, General Mohamed Mediene.
Bouteflika's allies say that, by limiting the army's role in politics, the constitutional reforms would strengthen the president's hand in a fourth term.
The constitutional changes have won the backing of other parties and powerful unions, part of a push widely interpreted as a sign he is considering standing for another term.
Algerians expect the decision of whether he will run again and the name of any vice presidential running mate will emerge from behind-the-scenes dealmaking by shadowy figures popularly referred to as "Le Pouvoir" - "the power" - consisting of FLN party leaders and security services bosses.
If that is the case, Bouteflika seems to be making moves that would strengthen his position.
This year he reshuffled his cabinet to bolster allies. Security sources say he also shifted some responsibilities from the DRS security service to the regular army to curtail the influence of Mediene.
The question of succession in Algeria is closely watched by its neighbors and by Western powers who see the large North African oil and gas producer as a key partner in the war against Islamist militants in the Maghreb.
Bouteflika has already delegated some responsibilities to his premier Abdelmalek Sellal, seen as a potential running mate.
"I can tell you he is healthy and we will see him just now," Sellal said when asked about Bouteflika's health. "If he wants to pursue his mission, he will decide on his conscience."
The succession is not likely to be resolved in the streets as it was during the 2011 "Arab Spring" revolts in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen. Algerians did not rise up as their neighbors did, although the country has seen protests over jobs and living standards. Instead, the political future is likely to be resolved through negotiation among powerful insiders.
With around $200 billion of reserves from energy sales, the government has cash to ward off any unrest at home. Opposition parties are weak and Algerians have no appetite for upheaval after their bloody civil war.
Investors will be keen to see how the next government opens up more after years of centralized state control, and how it makes deals with more lucrative terms for foreign oil players.
If Bouteflika doesn't run, then it is still unclear whether the DRS could seek to impose its own candidate. With its powers curbed, the DRS may be no longer be able to block Bouteflika, and, said one state security source, may even support him.
"There is no doubt that the DRS will support Bouteflika no matter what decision he will take because at the end of the day it will keep within the law," the source said.
But Eurasia's Fabiani said the DRS chief may seek to push back against the Bouteflika clan to "establish a level playing field" and seek a compromise candidate.
(Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Peter Graff)