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Apathy, Fear of Fraud Shadow Algerian Elections - 2002-05-29

Algerians head to the polls Thursday for the second legislative elections since civil war broke out a decade ago. Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has called for a free and fair vote. But from Algiers, The elections are clouded by widespread voter apathy and fear of fraud.

This week's rally in Algiers by the Islamist HMS party had the trappings of any election campaign. Waving flags and cheering on their favorite candidates, men and women packed a large auditorium in the working class district of Beb el Oued.

And supporters like 32-year-old Soufiane Sayah offered rousing praise for HMS, which is popularly known as Hamas, one of three moderate Islamist parties running in Algeria's legislative elections.

Mr. Sayah says he is voting for HMS because the party has experience in politics and is working to improve Algeria. He says he expects a lot of the party, and of its peaceful brand of Islam.

But such sentiments are rare on the streets of Algiers, as the country prepares for Thursday's legislative elections. Years of bloodshed, political repression and economic mismanagement have bred disgust and despair in this oil-rich North African country of 32 million people - where 70 percent of the population is less than 30 years old.

Two key parties are boycotting the vote. So are many ethnic Berbers, living in Algeria's volatile eastern region of Kabylia, where massive anti-government protests have been going on for over a year.

Indeed, barring substantial fraud, some political experts predict the largest score will be the tally of those who don't vote.

Nonetheless, many politicians and political analysts believe the vote is a key test for Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and his shaky efforts to restore peace and a degree of civilian rule to Algeria.

Some pro-government National Democratic Rally Party officials say they believe Algerians are eager to vote. They say things have changed since 1997 when widepsread fraud tainted the legislative race.

Political analysts say they will be watching closely how Mr. Bouteflika's government handles matters of electoral fraud and abstention tallies in Thursday's vote. But one Western official described the elections as a key step toward restoring political institutions and stability.

In fact, stability is a word rarely associated with Algeria. A decade ago, the country's military-backed government canceled the second round of legislative elections when the fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front party seemed likely to win. The move sparked a bloody civil war that killed as many as 150,000 people, and spread new terrorist networks to Europe and the United States.

But killings, which once occurred by the hundreds a month, have today dwindled to dozens. Some say Algerians are too exhausted to keep fighting. But others credit President Bouteflika's civil concord plan, which offered amnesty or partial amnesty to thousands of Islamist fighters.

Experts say Mr. Bouteflika has also put Algeria back on the world map, after a decade of diplomatic isolation. He is the first Algerian leader in 16 years to visit the White House, meeting twice last year with President Bush.

He and French President Jacques Chirac also exchanged the first visits between French and Algerian leaders in years. In addition, Western officials in Algiers describe the government's cooperation with the war on terrorism as extremely helpful.

But critics also fault Algeria's globe-trotting president for ignoring sizable domestic problems. That includes growing demands for more housing, jobs and educational opportunities. Experts say Mr. Bouteflika has moved too slowly to reform the economy, and that his government badly mishandled Berber unrest in eastern Kabylia, which sparked countrywide protests last year.

Opposition politicians like Ahmed Djeddai, the first secretary of the Socialist Forces Front Party, say neither Mr. Bouteflika nor Thursday's elections are likely to usher in change to Algeria, which is why his party is boycotting the elections.

Mr. Djeddai says the trappings of democracy in Algeria are a facade.

And in interviews on the streets of Algiers, a number of Algerians like Reda Hierche appear to agree. A student at the University of Algiers, Mr. Hierche says he won't be voting in Thursday's elections. He says the government doesn't respond to the needs of ordinary Algerians. He says his vote would only give it legitimacy.

Mr. Hierche is also among many who wonder just how much autonomy Mr. Bouteflika has to act against "le Pouvoir," the country's powerful elite. But experts caution that the military generals, businessmen and tribal leaders who make up that elite are not monolithic, but a shifting and divided block.

The degree of popular support for parties like Algeria's HMS is also unclear. Experts believe that, while many Algerians reject Islamist extremists, moderate religious parties have sizable grassroots backing. How well they score Thursday may be one telling indicator of Algeria's progress toward democracy and peace.