By Lamine Chikhi
ALGIERS (Reuters) - Ill-health may force veteran Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, now in hospital in Paris, to hasten his departure from power, plunging a youthful, restless nation into an uncertain political transition.
Algeria, led by Bouteflika since 1999, has for decades drawn its presidents from an ageing cohort of men who won their spurs in the bitter 1954-62 independence war with France.
Bouteflika, 76, was flown to the French capital on Saturday for treatment in a military hospital after suffering what state media said was a minor stroke that caused no permanent damage.
Algerians have long speculated about the health of their president, who had been widely tipped to seek a fourth term in 2014. When Bouteflika had surgery in France in 2005, they were told it was for a stomach ulcer. U.S. embassy cables leaked last year suggested he had in fact survived a bout of cancer.
Bouteflika eased Algeria out of the horrors of its civil war in the 1990s when an estimated 200,000 people were killed in a struggle between the security forces and armed Islamists.
The secular generals no longer openly call the shots, but few know where real power resides in an opaque system where an elected president cohabits with a shadowy security elite.
Few of Algeria's 36 million people, over 70 percent of whom are aged under 30, can remember the independence struggle from which their leaders draw legitimacy and many thirst for change.
"We must pass the torch to a new generation of leaders, the (era of) revolutionary legitimacy is over," said Hichem Aboud, a political writer and editor of "Mon Journal".
"I have no doubt that Bouteflika will not go for another term, he simply cannot do the job because he is too tired."
Algeria's cautious power-brokers may accept that younger faces are needed, but they are unlikely to allow any swift or dramatic political reform that might risk their own interests or reopen wounds in a country traumatized by its violent past.
Despite persistent social unrest, Algeria has so far avoided the kind of revolt that has ousted Arab rulers in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya since 2011. Syria's bitter conflict only reinforces the aversion of many Algerians to going down that path.
Geoff Porter, head of North Africa Risk Consulting, said Algerians mostly wanted a smooth, transparent transition.
"Yes, they want a candidate who has the vitality and energy to address Algeria's difficult problems ... but they also want someone who will incrementally transform the political system rather than entirely disrupt it," he said.
Algerians were aware, Porter said, that only an established insider would have the political capital, as well as the alliances and networks, to bring about change within the system.
Yet discontent is rife in Algeria, which supplies a fifth of Europe's natural gas imports and is a valued U.S. ally in countering Islamist militancy in North Africa and the Sahel region - a threat highlighted by January's bloody attack on the In Amenas gas facility in the southern Algerian desert.
In 2011, Bouteflika responded to a wave of riots over jobs, pay, housing and living conditions by opening the spending taps, allocating $23 billion in public grants and retroactive salary and benefit increases, which temporarily calmed the unrest.
But a second wave of protests has shaken southern provinces in recent months with youngsters demanding housing and jobs - youth unemployment is about 21 percent, according to the IMF.
Again Bouteflika sought to placate them with free loans, and police offered 6,000 new jobs to young southerners.
Algeria has deep pockets, with foreign reserves exceeding $200 billion and a large budget stabilization fund, but ultimately such handouts may not be sustainable. The government needs an oil price of $120 a barrel to balance its budget, the IMF says. Algerian crude is now trading at about $103 a barrel.
INTERNAL POWER STRUGGLE
If and when Bouteflika departs, competition for his job could upset a delicate balance of power within the ruling elite.
Former Prime Minister Ahmed Benbitour, 67, is the only declared candidate in the presidential election due in less than a year. Others may throw their hats in the ring only when Bouteflika, who took power in 1999, makes his intentions clear.
Among potential candidates is technocrat Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal, 65, seen as a man of consensus, and another former premier, Mouloud Hamrouche, 70, a reformist whose parents were killed during the independence war. He might get the support of Hocine Ait Ahmed, an icon of Algeria's revolution.
Algeria, dominated for decades by the National Liberation Front (FLN) that led the independence struggle, now has more than 100 smaller political parties, but their leaders are seen as too weak to stand a chance in the presidential race.
If Bouteflika proves too incapacitated to finish his term, Senate chairman Abdelkader Bensalah will replace him until elections are held within 60 days, under constitutional rules.
(Editing by Alistair Lyon)
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