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Algerians Go to Polls Hoping to End 5 Years of Bloodshed

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After 60,000 deaths and five years of terror that followed the cancellation of the last general election, the exhausted people of Algeria are trying again today to choose the country’s first multi-party parliament.

Expectations for a problem-free vote are not high in this capital, where the thud of a midday bomb no longer elicits a serious pause in the luncheon conversation and visiting journalists are routinely furnished with a trio of gunmen to take to interviews as “protection.”

On the eve of balloting, heavily armed troops and police were visible throughout Algiers. At least two rumbles apparently from explosions were heard across the capital, and a plume of gray-black smoke rose ominously from a residential area called Hydra, although security officers would not confirm that the cause was a bomb.

The government has accused Islamist militants of waging a war of intimidation--including car bombings and grisly massacres in rural villages--to frighten voters away from the polls in an election that it hopes will put Algeria back on the road to stability.

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The 1992 election, the first in Algeria after nearly three decades of socialist one-party rule, was aborted by the army when an Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front, was poised to take power in the scheduled second round.

The party’s sympathizers blame the military-backed regime for foiling the people’s wishes and triggering the cycle of violence. They accuse security forces of carrying out some atrocities in order to blame them on the militants and turn the public away from the Islamic cause.

Although the now-banned Islamic Salvation Front was barred from the current vote, two other Islamic-oriented parties are in the race. Others in the spectrum of 39 political parties participating openly advocate a dialogue with the banned party as the only long-term chance for peace.

Diplomats say the government is eager to gain legitimacy and international acceptance by holding elections that are perceived as fair. It invited U.S. and other international observers to monitor the voting. And more anti-government viewpoints were aired in state-controlled media during the campaign than before.

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“In the long run, civil society will definitely benefit,” said Jean Lavoie of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, which sent 14 election observers to Algeria under U.N. auspices.

Real power is expected to remain in the hands of the president, retired army Gen. Liamine Zeroual.

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A new proportional representation system means that no party is likely to emerge with a clear majority, and a coalition government will probably be formed under a prime minister appointed by the president. Constitutional changes enacted last year also called for the creation of a new upper house, one-third of whose members--directly appointed by Zeroual--would be enough to block legislation.

The two leading parties in the race for 380 National People’s Assembly seats are Zeroual’s recently formed National Rally for Democracy and the Movement for a Peaceful Society. The latter, an Islamist party formerly called Hamas, rejects violence and seems to have attracted many of the voters who previously had favored the Islamic Salvation Front.

Diplomats and politicians are unconvinced that the party would win this time even if it was allowed to run. They sense a new mood, a desire for national reconciliation and a backlash against extremism.

The no-holds-barred military fight against Islamic extremists has eliminated a threat that the government could fall to a military insurgency, said one Western diplomat. In apparent frustration, violent Islamic fighters have increasingly turned on civilians.

The extremists have lost their support, said Outoudert Abrous, editor of the newspaper Liberte. “Every family in Algeria has now lost someone.”

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People seem skeptical, however, of government assertions that the election will be a turning point, and diplomats in the capital view the vote more as a modest step in the right direction that should be followed by bolder moves toward democracy and national dialogue.

“I don’t think we’re going toward real democracy,” said Mostafa Bouchachi, a human rights lawyer who has received death threats for defending jailed Islamists. “When you ask someone in Algiers in the street, they don’t really think that things will change. People are resigned.”

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Algeria Fact Sheet

* Area: 920,000 square miles (more than three times the size of Texas)

* Population: 28.8 million, 75% under 30 years of age, of Arab and Berber stock.

* Economy: Based on oil and natural gas.


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