By Lamine Chikhi
ALGIERS (Reuters) - Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's cabinet director and loyal backer Ahmed Ouyahia was elected as the new leader of one of the two ruling parties on Wednesday, confirming his status of potential presidential successor.
Speculation over Bouteflika's health since he suffered a stroke two years ago, and whether he will be able to end his fourth term in 2019, is fuelling debate over who might replace the independence veteran who has been in office since 1999.
The North African OPEC state is at a delicate juncture after a collapse of oil prices cut into energy revenues that make up 95 percent of its exports and more than half the state budget.
Political sources and analysts said that with more than 20 years inside Algeria's political establishment, including several terms as prime minister, Ouyahia is on the short list of potential successors to Bouteflika.
Ouyahia's RND party is part of a ruling coalition with the Front de Liberation Nationale or FLN, the nationalist movement that has dominated Algerian politics since it was born out of the 1962 independence from France.
"Ouyahia is a statesman; he could become Algeria's next president," political analyst Farid Ferrahi told Reuters. "But the list is open for other candidates."
Analysts say that short list includes Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal, who has just joined the FLN to encourage support for his candidacy. He is close to Bouteflika as he served as his election campaign leader three times.
Another potential candidate could be United Nations veteran Lakhdar Brahimi. A former U.N. negotiator and envoy, Brahimi has been received several times by Bouteflika at the presidency in the past two years, fuelling more political speculation.
Algeria, a key U.S. ally against Islamist militancy in the region, and a major energy supplier for Europe, escaped most of the upheaval that hit the Middle East and North Africa during the 2011 "Arab Spring" revolts.
Many Algerians say their country already passed through those times when the FLN ended one-party rule in the 1980s and opened up the system to opposition parties. Algeria was racked by civil war in the 1990s after elections were canceled when an Islamist party appeared set to win at the ballot box.
But despite presidential elections, opposition parties say rival clans of aging FLN leaders, pro-government business magnates and generals have long managed Algerian politics in behind-the-scenes negotiations and see themselves as guardians of stability.
Many Algerians remain wary of upheaval since their own 1990s war with Islamist militants. The government has also long provided a vast welfare system by spending energy earnings on subsidised housing, basic food, cheap credits and fuel.
(Edited by Patrick Markey and Mark Heinrich)