Algeria's Tortuous Road to Democracy Economic Crisis, Fundamentalist Influence Shape Nation's Bid for New Political System

Article excerpt

AT a crossroads in the center of this dilapidated seaport stands a smart signpost, directing traffic to an imposing edifice overlooking the Mediterranean. "Party Headquarters," it reads.

Today, the sign is an anachronistic relic of single-party socialist rule in Algeria, where no less than 53 political parties have sprung up in the past two years to occupy 53 headquarters.

But as this North African country looks forward to its first free parliamentary elections - scheduled for late this year or early 1992 - the path to democracy is proving a tortuous one. The changes underway here call into question more than a political system - they go to the heart of the nature of Algerian society. An unbroken society

"This is a society that is slowly and painfully finding itself," says Zouaoui Benamadi, editor of the weekly Algerie Actualite. "We have discovered that neither 30 years of socialism nor 150 years of colonialism before that have broken society's springs." Now, he says, Algerians must find a way to reshape their society, reconciling democratic practices with Algerian traditions.

That search, opposition politicians and independent analysts say, is hindered by the reluctance of the former ruling party, the National Liberation Front (FLN), to relinquish the power it has held since its guerrillas forced an end to French colonial rule in 1962. And prospects for a peaceful transition to democracy are dimmed by the wide popularity of the fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), whose leaders openly say they will not tolerate political or cultural pluralism should they come to power.

This battle between discredited advocates of state socialism, Islamic fundamentalists, and a slew of infant parties is also being waged during an economic crisis, as a temporary government tries market reforms on an impoverished populace.

The difficulties were well illustrated during the last week of September, as the FLN deputies, who make up 95 percent of the national assembly, resisted the transitional government's efforts to reform the electoral law that will regulate the coming vote.

Allegations of gerrymandering led the FIS to call for a strike and street demonstrations last June, which degenerated into riots that killed more than 100 people, and resulted in the postponement of parliamentary elections.

The government's amendments met strong opposition from FLN deputies during the debate on the electoral reform measures. The debate has shown that the FLN "is determined to hang on, if not to a monopoly of power, at least to its hegemony," says Hocine Ait Ahmed, leader of the opposition Socialist Forces Front.

The debate coincided with the lifting Sept. 29 of a four-month state of siege, imposed after the violence in June on the grounds that Algeria's emerging new order needed protection from public unrest.

Opposition parties, especially the FIS, complained that the state of siege - banning almost all political activity - hamstrung them, and the FIS has declared that it will boycott the forthcoming elections unless the electoral law is to its liking and its leaders, jailed in June, are freed. Observers say it is improbable either condition will be fulfilled.

"We want just laws that will allow the people a free choice and a cleansing of the political climate," says Rabah Kebbir, head of the FIS political commission. The FIS won 55 percent of the vote in June 1990 municipal elections, far outstripping the FLN. Mr. …

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