Ruling NLF Makes Gains in Algerian Poll
Published: June 4, 2002 (Issue # 774)
ALGIERS, Algeria - The party that governed Algeria for nearly 30 years before the introduction of a multiparty system swept legislative elections that were marred by violence, a boycott and the lowest turnout ever.
The National Liberation Front, led by Prime Minister Ali Benflis, more than tripled its number of seats in the 389-seat parliament, moving from 64 to 199 seats, officials announced Friday.
Thursday's election was boycotted by key opposition parties and marred by unrest among the country's sizable Berber minority. Voter turnout - 46 percent - was the lowest since Algeria gained independence from France in 1962.
The participation rate and election-day riots in the Berber heartland of Kabyle, east of Algiers, cast a pall over President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's efforts to bring stability and a further measure of democracy to Algeria, where real power lies with the military.
Despite cautious steps toward increased democracy, the military is still widely viewed as the main power broker in Algeria, which is struggling under a decade-old Islamic insurgency, an insurrection in the Berber region, corruption and a hobbled economy, despite its oil and gas wealth.
The FLN's main coalition partner, the Rally for National Democracy, came in second with 48 seats, down sharply from 155 in the last chamber.
The FLN first came to power after the revolutionary movement with the same name led Algeria's war for independence against France. It remained in power until a new 1989 constitution legalized other political parties.
The FLN fell out of favor as other forces, led by Islamic fundamentalists, gained ground. Benflis, who campaigned actively ahead of the vote, rejuvenated the party. Some newspapers suggested he could become Bouteflika's successor.
Two moderate Islamic parties took 81 seats between them, thus becoming the second-strongest political force in the legislature.
The leader of Islah, a moderate Islamic party that won 43 of the 81 seats, claimed the election had been marked by fraud and said he would hand over evidence to authorities.
"Official results do not reflect the will of the nation,'' Abdallah Djeballah told a news conference. He would not elaborate on the fraud allegation.
Said Sadi, leader of the pro-Berber Rally for Culture and Democracy, which boycotted Thursday's vote, said the results proved the election was a sham, and the government had no intention of releasing its iron grip on power.
"After years and years of struggle for freedom of expression, social justice and human rights, the Algerian people have again been submitted to one-party rule,'' he said in an interview. "Algeria is heading for a period of grave institutional instability.''
Widespread voter apathy rooted in severe economic hardships and continued violence by Islamic militants was evident throughout the election campaign, when meetings were canceled due to lack of interest.
On the streets of the capital, Algiers, many said the results were decided beforehand. "We already knew what was going to happen. We no longer believe in political life,'' said Omar Mostefai, a taxi driver, who says he didn't vote.
One civilian was killed and three injured during election-day riots in the Kabyle region, whose capital, Tizi Ouzou, is 96 kilometers east of Algiers. The interior minister said 108 security forces were injured in the disturbances.
The Berber protest movement, which erupted last year after a teenager was killed while in police custody, has helped galvanize masses of citizens discontent with acute water shortages, spiraling unemployment and cramped housing.
Berbers are estimated to make up a third of Algeria's 30 million people. They claim to be the original inhabitants of Muslim North Africa, and accuse Algerian authorities of oppression.
Western diplomats say Algeria's aging political class has lost touch with a population of which 70 percent are less than 30 years old. However, Bouteflika, the president, has helped lift Algeria out of a decade of international isolation. Last year, he became the first Algerian leader to visit Washington in 16 years and twice met with U.S. President George W. Bush.
Diplomats described Algeria's cooperation in the war on terrorism as very helpful. But, just hours before Thursday's vote, Islamic extremists, some of whom have been linked to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network, massacred 23 nomads in a village west of Algiers.