September 15, 1999
Bouteflika Asks Algerians To Endorse Him In Poll
Filed at 1:34 p.m. EDT
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
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
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
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
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.
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
``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
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
``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.