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Saturday May 17, 2014 MYT 4:55:02 AM
Saturday May 17, 2014 MYT 4:56:26 AM
by patrick markey AND lamine chikhi
ALGIERS (Reuters) - Algeria’s government on Friday released details of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's constitutional reform package that includes delegating more authority to the prime minister and more powers for opposition parties in parliament. Bouteflika, who won re-election last month despite ill health after suffering a stroke a year ago, promised the reforms to strengthen democracy in a country largely controlled by the ruling FLN party and the army since independence in 1962. Most opposition parties have already rejected Bouteflika's invitation to debate the amendments as an attempt to co-opt them into a political system they say is unlikely to bring any real change.
With a question mark still hanging over the 77-year-old leader's health, analysts said the reforms may also be aimed at shoring up his allies and guaranteeing a stable transition of power should Bouteflika be unable to finish his term.
According to a draft of proposals published on Friday by the government, the president would delegate some executive decree and regulation powers to the prime minister.
In parliament, parties would be given more rights to question government officials and to demand responses. Corruption and press freedoms are also addressed.
"This will reinforce the separation of powers, strengthen the independence of justice and of parliament and affirm the role and rights of the opposition," said Ahmed Ouyahia, Bouteflika's chief of staff charged with overseeing reforms.
Though still divided, the opposition has mostly dismissed the amendments after boycotting an election they said unfairly favoured Bouteflika and the FLN. They will hold meetings next month to decide on their strategy.
Under Bouteflika, the North African OPEC oil producer has become an ally in the Western campaign against Islamist militancy in the Maghreb. Algeria is also a key supplier of gas to Europe, despite concerns over its stagnating production.
But the Algerian leader's stroke raised questions about a potential transition and a revival of a power struggle between Bouteflika's political allies and the DRS military intelligence service, which critics say has long played a role in politics. Since his illness, Bouteflika has moved behind the scenes to curb the traditional kingmaker position of the DRS by firing key generals and placing loyalists in other posts, analysts said.
His current prime minister is Abdelmalek Sellal, an ally who campaigned on Bouteflika's behalf during the election.
"The proposed amendments to the constitution are aimed at managing the political transition," said Katerina Fytatzi of global affairs advisory firm Oxford Analytica. "Giving greater powers to the prime minister reduces the burden on the evidently frail 77-year-old."
Bouteflika commands broad backing in a country still traumatised by a decade-long war in the 1990s with armed Islamists that killed more than 200,000 people. Winning a fourth term underlined his role as a guarantor of stability.
That conflict has left a deep scar on Algerian society, where many are wary of upheaval and prefer stability over the idea of radical change despite frustrations over jobs, services and housing that often spill over into protests.
With around $200 billion in foreign reserves from its energy sales, Algeria has an ample cushion for spending on subsidies and loans. These helped to quell discontent over housing and food prices during the 2011 "Arab Spring" revolts in the region.
But Algeria also needs to attract more foreign investment, especially in the energy sector where crude and gas production has been stagnating. New fields need foreign oil operators to help raise output.
(Editing by Gareth Jones)
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