Hopes for Multi-Party Elections to End Algeria's Nightmare Die with April 15 One-Candidate Choice

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Hopes for Multi-Party Elections to End Algeria's Nightmare Die With April 15 One-Candidate Choice

With more than 50 candidates initially slated to run for the presidency, Algeria appeared ready to give democracy a chance. But appearances can be deceiving. In a matter of a few weeks the 50 candidates -- through technicalities and disqualification -- dwindled to 12, to 7 and eventually to one lone candidate. The April 15 vote, therefore, merely confirmed the appointment of that army-backed candidate, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, as president.

From the moment Algeria's military-backed President Liamine Zeroual called early elections last September, observers wondered what the establishment had up its sleeve. Needless to say, they are no longer wondering.

Shortly after Zeroual's promise of a free and fair election the military quickly pushed forward its "national consensus candidate," Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Driving home the army's seriousness, Tahar Behbaibeche, general secretary of the National Democratic Rally (RND), the senior partner in the ruling coalition, was ousted for publicly stating that party members were pressured by the generals to back Bouteflika. The leaders of five opposition parties came forward quickly and released a statement demanding "that pressures on political parties be lifted and that the president's commitments on a fair poll be respected and the army be neutral."

Few held out much hope for a free and fair contest or an end to the carnage that has claimed between 65,000 and 100,000 lives and resulted in the imprisonment of more than 150,000 persons. The reaction of the international community -- in particular the West -- could have had a positive impact had they cared about the elections in this North African cauldron of death and destruction.

Algeria's 30 million people began their downward spiral into a vicious circle of violence in 1992, following the military's cancellation of North Africa's first experiment in multi-party democracy. This happened after the now-outlawed Islamist party, Front Islamique du Salut (FIS), had won the majority of 1991 municipal election contests and, a few months later, ran up sizable pluralities in the first stage of national elections. Rather than letting the FIS win, the military then cancelled the second-stage runoff elections and imposed emergency rule. The usual calls for democracy and human rights from the West, including Algeria's old colonial master, France, were deathly muted.

Algerian blood flowed freely as the military battled Islamists and radical and moderate Islamists battled each other. The West's hypocritical acquiescence and support -- France reportedly has provided arms, funding, intelligence and diplomatic aid -- for the hijackers of democracy has not gone unnoticed.

The military quickly pushed forward its "national consensus candidate."

As one of the candidates, Hussein Ayet Ahmed, head of the Front des Forces Socialistes (FFS), noted recently, "37 years of monopoly on power and of refusing freedom of choice is enough."

From the time the 1999 elections were called, the army's open backing of Bouteflika raised concerns that the process was rigged. But Liamine Zeroual assured the nation that the process would be free and fair.

The subsequent open support of Bouteflika not only caused a rift within the main coalition party, it also brought about a split in the Islamist Al Nahda party, which in a surprising turn of events backed the army's choice prior to the election. Al Nahda's founder and now former leader, Abdallah Djaballah, disappointed with the Politburo's decision, set up a new party to contest the elections until his withdrawal the day before the polls.

The largest legal Islamist party, the Movement for a Peaceful Society (MPS), which won three million votes and garnered 69 seats in the National Assembly in the 1995 elections, was also expected to make strong gains. Mahfoud Nahnah, head of the MPS, and the independent Islamist Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi would also have been strong candidates for the presidency if the elections had proceeded fairly, Ibrahimi's campaign coordinator was the former number three man in the FIS, and the mosques had been actively pushing his candidacy. …