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April 17, 1999

Algerians Protest Election With an Unsurprising Winner


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  • With a Field Reduced to One, Algerians Vote (Apr. 16)
    By JOHN F. BURNS

    ALGIERS -- Police officers with batons broke up street demonstrations in central Algiers and two other cities Friday after a candidate backed by the army, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, was declared the winner of a presidential election marred by allegations of extensive vote rigging. At the last minute, all other candidates withdrew from the ballot in protest.

    Bouteflika, 62, a veteran of governments that the military led in the 1960s and 70s, was credited in official tabulations with having won nearly 74 percent of the vote in the election on Thursday.

    At a news conference, he dismissed opponents' claims that he had been imposed by the generals, who have held power here for decades and said that he was ready to be sworn in as soon as the formalities had been completed, probably by the end of the month.

    "Absolutely, absolutely," Bouteflika told reporters who asked whether he considered his election legitimate. "Whether it is in Algeria, or France or Sweden, 74 percent of the votes is a very decent score."

    The fraud allegations centered on reports that his tally had been inflated by millions of phantom ballots prepared in advance by the government of President Liamine Zeroual.

    The outcome was a sharp disappointment for Algerians, who had hoped that the vote would usher in an era of civilian rule free from any taint of army control. Their hopes were encouraged when Zeroual, a retired general, and the army commander, Gen. Mohammed Lamari, pledged at the outset of the campaign that the army would be neutral and suggested that it was time for the army to leave politics altogether.

    If Algerians conclude that Bouteflika's election was rigged, it could raise new doubts about the country's ability to emerge from the trauma of recent years, when armed Islamist groups have waged a brutal struggle for power. The conflict began after the army canceled elections in 1992 because victory seemed to be going to the Islamic Salvation Front, which had pledged to impose strict Islamic rule.

    In the last year, with popular sentiment's shifting sharply against the Islamic guerrillas and with the army's gaining the upper hand in the fighting, Algerians had begun to talk of moving to a new era of moderation, with the radicals and the generals sidelined in favor of a civilian government.

    But if Bouteflika is seen as a front man for the generals, many people in this nation of 30 million fear that opinion could begin to shift back to the Islamic militants.

    Even as Bouteflika celebrated, hundreds of protesters who were gathering in a square in central Algiers, mostly young men, were charged by the police. Several people were wounded by the charges, and at least 20 arrested.

    One elderly man appeared to have been seriously hurt, lying face down on the road for at least 20 minutes before an ambulance took him away.

    The police suppressed similar protests in Tizi-Ouzou and Bajaia, two cities east of Algiers that have been strongholds of opposition to Bouteflika, Reuters reported.

    In Algiers, Bouteflika's supporters responded to the protests by organizing lengthy motorcades that wound through the streets to the accompaniment of honking horns and waving Algerian flags.

    Interior Minister Abdelmalik Sellal said 10.5 million of the 17.5 million eligible voters had cast ballots, a turnout of slightly more than 60 percent. He angrily rejected the allegations of vote rigging, saying everything possible had been done to eliminate fraud.

    "Ever since 1992, whatever the government did, all we ever heard was, 'Fraud, fraud, fraud!"' Sellal said. "We were so fed up with it that we were determined to have an election that was free of any suggestion of taint".

    The allegations seem highly likely to be a major handicap for Bouteflika, not least because there is no way to test them. At the outset of the campaign, the government rejected demands by opposition candidates and Western governments, including the United States, for international monitors, saying observers would constitute interference in internal affairs.

    The high turnout reported by the government surprised many, contrasting as it did with what was visible on Thursday, when polling stations here appeared to be largely deserted. Western news agencies reported that similar quiet was evident at stations in other major centers.

    But final government figures showed turnouts in some towns and cities of more than 70 percent, offsetting single-figure turnouts in areas of eastern Algeria, where Bouteflika's support is low.

    Although all the candidates except Bouteflika withdrew from the contest 24 hours before the election, the names of all seven remained on the ballot. Opinion polls published by independent newspapers in the monthlong campaign had pointed to a victory by Bouteflika, but not by anywhere close to such a huge margin.

    The Interior Ministry said a moderate Islamic candidate, Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi, was the runner-up to Bouteflika, with nearly 13 per cent of the votes. Another moderate Islamic candidate, Abdellah Djaballah, was third, with nearly 4 percent, and Hocine Ait Ahmed, a Socialist who was a leader of the struggle for independence from France, received 3 percent. Ait Ahmed, 73, was favored to run strongly but suffered a heart attack and spent the last two weeks of the campaign in a Swiss hospital.

    At a news conference, Ibrahimi, who is 67 and spent 23 years as a minister in military-led governments, said the government had printed millions of extra ballots that had been added to Bouteflika's total. Nonetheless, he said, the election had moved Algeria closer to democracy by exposing the generals.

    "We have smashed their democratic facade," he said. "Instead of responding to the Algerian people's yearning for change, they have chosen repression, and they will have to answer for the consequences."




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