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September 15, 1999

Bouteflika Asks Algerians To Endorse Him In Poll


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Filed at 1:34 p.m. EDT

By Reuters

ALGIERS (Reuters) - President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is asking war-weary Algerians for a powerful endorsement of his peace plan in a referendum Thursday, offering to release moderate Islamists if he wins.

In three weeks of campaigning and skilful oratory across this vast north African country Bouteflika has promised to end a seven-year-old cycle of violence and revenge that has killed 100,000 people.

Algeria's 17.5 million voters will be asked just one question: ``Do you agree with the president's approach to restore peace and civil harmony?''

Diplomats and analysts say they expect a higher turnout than in previous polls.

Critics say Bouteflika wants the referendum to legitimize an April election victory that was rendered hollow by the last- minute withdrawal of all six rival candidates who charged the army with ballot-rigging.

But supporters say Bouteflika is genuinely seeking a popular mandate to make good pledges to overhaul state institutions and revive an economy ruined by civil strife.

Under a peace plan in June Bouteflika freed thousands of supporters of the relatively moderate Islamic Salvation Army, (AIS) and offered to pardon more if the deal was approved in the referendum.

He said radical Muslim rebels would be spared the death penalty, whatever their crime, if they surrendered before January. But he stopped short of offering a general amnesty.

``I tell them that the Algerian people are more forgiving than they can imagine,'' Bouteflika said in a recent speech.

``But I swear to God that after January 13, the sword that I will brandish will be sharper than Hajjaj's,'' he added in reference to Hajjaj Bin Youssef who brutally ended a rebellion in Iraq against the eighth century Umayyad Islamic authority in Syria.

In one of his most sweeping anti-corruption drives Bouteflika sacked nearly half of the country's provincial governors last month. He also set up a committee to reform the judiciary.

He called the move a first step and promised further actions if Algerians gave him their trust.

``We detect a change in attitude. His messages appear to be effective and many Algerians are impressed...We are impressed,'' a Western diplomat said.

BOUTEFLIKA'S ORATORY

Some Algerians attribute much of the change to Bouteflika's oratory and his ability to communicate with his people.

``He skillfully uses a rich mix of verses from the holy Koran, sayings by Prophet Mohammed, Arabic and Algerian proverbs and even French,'' said Massaoud Benrabie, a senior Algerian television editor.

``These were the same elements of the speeches by Abassi Madani and Ali Belhadj through which they converted thousands of Algerians to the Islamist cause,'' Benrabie added, referring to the two top leaders of the now banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS).

Madani is under house arrest, while Belhajd is in jail. Both were arrested after the start of the Islamist rebellion in early 1992 when the army-led authorities scrapped a general election which the FIS was poised to win.

Bouteflika's message is aimed at young people who make up two-thirds of the 30 million population, and who are the hardest hit by unemployment, now at 30 percent.

He stresses the country's great potential but avoids raising unrealistic expectations.

``We have praised ourselves to the extent that we felt that we are God's chosen people. The reality is that we are exactly the opposite because the chosen people achieve miracles, while we are lazy,'' he said.




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