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Amid Bloodshed and Boycotts, Algerians Prepare to Pick a Leader

November 8, 1995

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) _ Isolated by a nearly 4-year-old insurgency, Algerians pick a president next week. But the balloting offers few prospects of an end to the violence that has torn this North African nation.

Incumbent President Liamine Zeroual is enjoying a comfortable lead over his three challengers. The campaign, without meaningful debates, has ignored the issues of religion, violence, corruption and joblessness that affect the daily lives of ordinary Algerians.

Most of the political opposition is boycotting the Nov. 16 election, declaring it a charade to prop up the military-backed regime. Some of the more radical groups are threatening to carry out attacks against voters.

Those voters who haven’t been intimidated express little hope that the election will solve the country’s core problems, including 25 percent unemployment and social unrest.

``This vote won’t change anything. But I’m going to vote so we don’t leave the field free to the Islamic radicals,″ said Mohand Ait Amara, 36 and unemployed.

Extremist groups have been trying to topple the government and install strict Islamic rule since January 1992, when the government canceled legislative elections that the main opposition party _ the Islamic Salvation Front _ was poised to win. More than 40,000 people have died in the insurgency.

The Front, now an illegal party in Algeria, is banned from participating in this election. It is urging its supporters to boycott the election or cast blank ballots.

The Front’s militant branch, The Islamic Salvation Army, and the rival Armed Islamic Group are taking a more lethal stand, threatening to carry out attacks against voters at the country’s 31,000 polling stations.

The Armed Islamic Group, the most extremist of the factions trying to overthrow the government, has been blamed for many of the recent car bomb attacks, killings and sabotage that have increased dramatically in Algeria in recent weeks.

The group also has claimed responsibility for some of the eight bombings or attempts in France that have killed seven people and wounded 160 others since midsummer. Islamic radicals are angry at France for financially supporting Algeria, a former colony.

``I’m not going to vote, because the extremists have threatened to kill anyone who does,″ said a 22-year-old Algiers student who would give her name only as Farida.

Intent on ensuring a clean election, Zeroual said about 100 monitors from the United Nations, the Organization of African Unity and the Arab League to examine the balloting.

``The conditions for free and democratic scrutiny are here,″ Zeroual said, pledging ``a firm resistance to terrorism.″ Police presence has increased sharply over the past two months.

Walls around the Algerian capital, Algiers, are plastered with color posters of all four candidates. But election observers predict an easy first-round victory for Zeroual, 54, a retired general appointed in January 1994 to guide the government through a three-year transition to democracy.

Before then, Algeria had been led by the National Liberation Front since it gained independence from France in 1962. In 1989, the constitution was changed to allow for a multiparty system, but the country has been traumatized by violence since the 1992 government clampdown.

Zeroual’s main challenger is Sheik Mahfoudh Nahnah, 53, a moderate Islamic activist. The other two candidates are opposed to an Islamic state: Said Sadi, 48, of the Assembly for Democracy and Culture; and Nourreddine Boukrouh, 45, of the Algerian Renewal Party.

If no candidate wins at least 50 percent of the first-round ballots, a runoff election will be held Dec. 15. The winner will serve a five-year term.

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