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Algerian President Bouteflika Faces Re-Election Challenge - 2004-04-07

Algerians vote Thursday in presidential elections that are taking place in a dramatically different climate than just five years ago, when President Abdelaziz Bouteflika came to power. Gone is the violence that ripped Algeria apart during the 1990s. Unlike in the past, Mr. Bouteflika is running for re-election against five other contenders.

When Mr. Bouteflika first ran for president of Algeria in 1999, every opposition candidate dropped out on the eve of the elections, claiming the vote was marred by fraud. Topping their list of complaints was that Mr. Bouteflika had already been handpicked to win by a shadowy military structure that many Algerians call "the power" or "the deciders" in Algeria.

This time, Mr. Bouteflika is facing five opposition candidates, including his former prime minister, Ali Benflis. It appears unclear whether the Algerian military backs any of the candidates, including Mr. Bouteflika.

If Algeria is far from being a full-fledged democracy, Algeria analyst Hugh Roberts notes many of these changes are new in a country that has experienced military dictatorships and one party rule for decades.

"Possibly, the most important difference from five years ago is that this is the first time that [an] Algerian president is running for re-election," he said. "This has never happened before under the pluralist system. It happened under the one-party system, when Chadli Bandjedid was re-elected twice. But this is the first time that the incumbent president has been a candidate in a notionally pluralist and contested election."

Other changes have also taken place here recently. During Mr. Bouteflika's presidency, the government issued a sweeping amnesty. It pardoned all but the most brutal Islamist fighters, who participated in bloody clashes against the government in the 1990s in their failed attempt to establish an Islamic state. Those clashes killed more than 100,000 Algerians.

Today, the Islamists are weak and splintered. In another sign of changing times, some former leaders of the outlawed Islamic Salvation Army have publicly endorsed Mr. Bouteflika for a second term.

Under Mr. Bouteflika's watch, the country also took its first steps toward economic reform. And Mr. Bouteflika, a former Algerian foreign minister, is credited for bringing Algeria back into the international fold after years of diplomatic isolation. He has improved relations with Algeria's old colonizer, France, and his government has worked with the United States on the war against terrorism.

But analysts and foreign diplomats note that Algeria has a long way to go, both politically and economically. Human rights abuses and corruption remain. Foreigners are slow to invest in Algeria.

Nonetheless, Mr. Bouteflika's campaign manager, Sellal Abdelmalek, says he is confident Mr. Bouteflika will be re-elected.

"Most Algerians want stability and continuity." Mr. Abdelmalek said. "If Mr. Bouteflika is granted a second term, the president will continue to institute gradual reforms, such as reducing Algeria's skyrocketing unemployment, and giving Algerian women greater rights."

But, Mr. Bouteflika's critics paint a far different picture of the country under the Algerian leader. Sallat Abdelkader is campaign manager for former Prime Minister Benflis, who is considered Mr. Bouteflika's main rival in the elections.

"Algeria's lucrative oil revenues and a good harvest, not Mr. Bouteflika's policies, have spurred recent economic growth, which topped six percent last year," he said. He accuses the 68-year-old president of being authoritarian. Mr. Abdelkader adds that the 59-year-old Mr. Benflis is part of Algeria's new generation who best represents the vast majority of Algerians who are under 30 years of age. "Mr. Bouteflika is part of the old guard from Algeria's war of independence a half-century ago," he added.

Opposition politicians also warn there might be widespread fraud in Thursday's voting, despite promises by the government and the military that Algerian elections will be free and fair.

One such critic, Mr. Saadi Abdelghafour, vice president of the moderate Islamist Movement for National Reform party, which is fielding a presidential candidate, notes that irregularities have taken place during the campaign.

Still other critics, like Mohammed Benchicou, director of Algeria's Le Matin newspaper and author of a controversial book on the president, accuse Mr. Bouteflika of stifling press freedom.

"President Bouteflika is no democrat, but rather a new dictator in civilian clothes," he said.

On the streets of Algiers, ordinary citizens offer mixed opinions about the upcoming elections, and about Mr. Bouteflika. Shop worker Omar Benwabeh, 23, says he supports none of the politicians.

Mr. Benwabeh said he has never voted, and doesn't intend to do so on Thursday. "What's the point," he asked. "Mr. Bouteflika has not done much to improve the country. He says he would prefer an Islamist government."

Others, like one 50-year-old man who identified himself only as Abdou, says he hopes Algeria will elect a new president. He said that Mr. Bouteflika has done some good things as president, such as fostering civil reconciliation between former Islamist fighters and ordinary Algerians. But he believes it is now time for the president to step down, and for a new leader to take his place.

The outcome of Thursday's elections is not clear. Some analysts of Algeria's murky politics predict Mr. Bouteflika will win easily, others suggest he may fail to win an absolute majority and a second round of voting may be held. That, too, would be a first for Algeria in modern times.