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Algeria Holds Presidential Elections - 2004-04-08

Algerians go to the polls Thursday in what observers hope may be groundbreaking presidential elections for the North African country. For the first time since its independence in 1962, a civilian president is running for a second term in a multi-party vote.

Thursday is the start of Algeria's weekend, but at 8:00 a.m., there was already a steady stream of people piling into the polling place at the Pasteur middle school in downtown Algiers, where half a dozen policemen stood guard.

Abdelkader Bouhrin, 36, was among the early voters. Like many others interviewed here, he said he had marked his ballot in favor of the country's current president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Mr. Bouhrin, who is a doctor at a nearby hospital, says he believes Mr. Bouteflika is the best choice among the six candidates vying for president. Since he came to power in 1999, Mr. Bouhrin says, the president has ushered in many changes, ending insurgency by Muslim militants and helping young people.

The incumbent president is expected to win another term, but analysts warn polls here are unreliable, and there may be a second round of voting. Either way, Algerians, like 68-year-old Mazouz Benyacoub, believe this presidential election - the eighth since Algerian independence - may represent the country's first step toward real democracy.

For the first time, Mr. Benyacoub says, Algerians have a choice of candidates, and the chance to change the political system. He says he is voting for Ali Benflis, Mr. Bouteflika's former prime minister, who is considered his top rival in the race.

Analysts also say this election marks a change in modern Algerian history. The army, long a key player in Algerian politics, says it will remain neutral in the elections.

Five years ago, Mr. Bouteflika's opposition bowed out of the race at the last minute, claiming the elections were rigged. This time, all five opposition candidates remained in the running. Algeria even has its first female presidential candidate.

Despite the government's vows of a fair election, several opposition candidates warn the vote may be marred by fraud. Many also fear there may be violence in the Algerian province of Kabylia, where some local politicians have called on voters to boycott the elections.