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April 18, 1999

Skepticism in Algeria: After Vote, New Doubt

By JOHN F. BURNS

ALGIERS, Algeria -- When Algeria's presidential campaign began last month, the talk among optimists was of setting a new standard for the Muslim world by installing a leader recognized by the 30 million Algerians as the people's choice.

The vision was offered more in hope than belief, given three decades of military rule here and the brutal conflict with Islamic militant groups in recent years that has killed tens of thousands of people.

Indeed, six candidates withdrew at the last minute before the election Thursday over accusations of fraud. Algeria got its elected civilian president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a 62-year-old former foreign minister. But the circumstances of his victory persuaded many Algerians that they remained in the grip of the generals and bureaucrats who have ruled the country since a military coup in 1965.

Officially, Bouteflika won nearly 74 percent of the vote, with a turnout of slightly more than 60 percent among an electorate estimated at 17.5 million. Bouteflika declared himself the "consensus president" and prepared to take office later this month. Meanwhile, street protests in central Algiers right after the result was announced indicated at least some people disagreed.

Placards reading "No to dictatorship!" were waved before policemen in riot gear broke up the crowd with truncheons. On Saturday, news vendors quickly sold out of independent newspapers that have urged an end to military rule, most suggesting that Bouteflika's election was rigged.

A front-page commentary in El Watan, one of the most widely read newspapers, implied that little else could have been expected. Bouteflika, it noted, once served as right-hand man to Houari Boumedienne, the army colonel who in 1965 overthrew Algeria's first civilian president, Ahmed Ben Bella.

"In the end, the regime installed in 1965 by Boumedienne's coup d'etat, in which Bouteflika played a part, did not want to take the risk of an open and transparent election," the commentary said. "Democracy and open competition for power will have to wait for better days."

In his campaign, Bouteflika repeatedly denied that he was the army's man, despite the fact that he was backed by two political parties that have been the army's political vehicles, and appeared to have campaign funds out of proportion to his modest declaration of personal wealth. Still, independent newspapers reckoned he was virtually assured of victory, especially with his main opponents dividing the reformist vote among themselves.

In the end, the surprise lay in the size of the turnout, reported to be about double what most foreign reporters and diplomats expected after visiting polling stations in Algiers. "If the turnout was more than 30 percent, I'll eat my hat," one Western envoy said.

Bouteflika himself said on the eve of the vote that he needed a large turnout -- he mentioned 60 percent -- in order to achieve "popular legitimacy." After the withdrawal of the other candidates, there was speculation that he might decline the victory. But in the end he dismissed the claims of election rigging as sour grapes by his opponents.

Algerians were left to ponder the kind of president Bouteflika will be. As a candidate, he avoided controversial subjects like the army's political role. In the campaign, he lauded the military's role in "protecting" the nation against Islamic rebels.

When a Western reporter pressed him during an interview last week to say whether he would push the generals out of politics, he became angry, saying he would not tolerate insults to the military. When another reporter asked if it was time for the army to surrender political power, he replied, "Not yet."

Without full control of the army, few Algerians believe that Bouteflika will gain the flexibility he needs to tackle the country's problems, which include a stagnant economy and a way to establish a "reconciliation" between those who want a secular future for Algeria and groups that seek Islamic rule.

Although less active now than they were only 18 months ago, when whole villages were being massacred only 20 miles from Algiers, the Islamic rebels remain a major threat. Their brutality has apparently alienated many of the people who voted for the main Islamic group, the now-banned Islamic Salvation Front, in an election in 1991 that the army canceled, setting off the bloodletting.

There are fears that political inertia will play into the rebels' hands, especially if it delays economic reforms needed to halt widespread unemployment that has left tens of thousands of young Algerians without jobs. The country's real political future may rest not so much with Bouteflika as with the 70 percent of Algerians who are under 30: It is their problems the new president will have to resolve if Algeria is to find a lasting peace.




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