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Referendum to Ban Islamic Parties Wins; Opposition Calls Vote a Sham

November 29, 1996

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) _ Algerians overwhelmingly approved a constitutional referendum to ban religion in politics and expand presidential powers, the government announced today.

Opposition parties called Thursday’s election a sham and the referendum to revise the 1989 constitution a setback for democracy.

The referendum passed with 85.8 percent of voters in favor and 14.1 percent against, Interior Minister Moustafa Ben Mansour said at a news conference. Voter turnout was 79 percent, he said.

Ben Mansour praised the ``general atmosphere of enthusiasm and freedom in which this referendum took place.″

The opposition party Rally for Culture and Democracy _ which watched the election from outside polling centers in several cities _ estimated a nationwide turnout of only about 30 percent, its director, Said Sadi, told The Associated Press.

The referendum was held amid a new wave of violence, marked by massacres and bombs, blamed on the Islamic extremists fighting to topple the government. More than 250 people have been killed in the Algiers region in seven weeks.

No violence was reported at the country’s 35,500 polling stations, guarded by security forces, despite a threat by the Armed Islamic Group to slit the throats of anyone who voted.

But a bomb apparently meant to be planted at one precinct exploded in a cafe in Baraki, southeast of Algiers on Thursday morning. The blast killed five people, including the man carrying it, said hospital sources, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Opposition parties and Algeria’s independent media criticized the absence of international and opposition election monitors. Such monitors were able to observe last year’s presidential election.

``I’ve never seen something so vulgar. With fraud of this scope, (President Liamine) Zeroual is sending a political message:″ that he is going to do anything he wants, Sadi said.

The constitutional revisions would ban political parties based on religion, language and regionalism, a reference to Algeria’s substantial Berber community, which has long worked for official recognition of its language.

The government says the ban and other amendments to the constitution are aimed at stabilizing the country after nearly five years of an Islamic insurgency that has taken more than 60,000 lives.

But Algerian and foreign analysts say the changes, which include creation of a new upper chamber of parliament, are designed to enable the president to block unwelcome political initiatives.

Zeroual will appoint one-third of the members of the new chamber, while two-thirds will be chosen by elected local officials.

``I have promised to respect the will of the people,″ Zeroual said Thursday as he left a polling place in El Mouradia, an Algiers neighborhood.

Of 16.4 million registered voters, 13.1 million cast ballots Thursday, Ben Mansour said. Of those, 12.7 million were considered valid. The vote breakdown was 10.9 million in favor of the referendum and 1.8 million against.

The moderate Islamic party Hamas stood to gain from the referendum’s passage. The party, which has a minister in the government, quietly called on citizens to vote, without saying how.

Virulent anti-Islamics claim the government intends to use a reworked Hamas as a vehicle to control pro-Islamic elements, making it an alternative to the Islamic Salvation Front.

The Salvation Front was banned in 1992 after the army canceled legislative elections the party was poised to win. The move triggered the insurgency.

The party’s main leaders remain in jail. Those in exile decried the referendum as a ``masquerade.″

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