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Algerians Not Interested in Election

May 30, 2002

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ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) _ Amar Khaldi lives in a room with eight relatives. He rarely has running water and now his modest grocery store recently ravaged by floods has been ordered shut.

Like many Algerians, the last thing on Khaldi’s mind is Thursday’s legislative election. ``What’s the point of voting? It’s going to change nothing,″ he said with a shrug.

Reeling from a decade of violence by Islamic insurgents, the North African country of 30 million people is choosing legislators in a vote seen as vital to its search for real stability.

But soaring unemployment, crammed housing and severe water shortages have turned many voters away from the election _ whose results they claim have already been decided.

The dissatisfaction has been abetted by boycott calls from the country’s sizable Berber minority. Two leading opposition parties, both pro-Berber, the Socialist Forces’ Front and the Rally for Culture and Democracy, have called for a boycott of Thursday’s vote.

Relations between government forces and the Berbers have been tense since Algeria won independence from France in 1962. The Berbers _ who claim to be North Africa’s original inhabitants _ want their language to be officially recognized by the government and demand an end to what they say is systematic discrimination by the Arab majority.

The election comes amid the almost daily violence of an Islamic guerrilla war that has killed an estimated 120,000 people since 1992. The fighting erupted after the army scrapped legislative elections that a Muslim fundamentalist party was poised to win.

The last elections in 1997 gave Algeria its first multiparty assembly but were themselves tarnished by allegations of fraud.

Opponents predict the main partners in Algeria’s coalition government, like the National Liberation Front of Prime Minister Ali Benflis and the National Democratic Rally, will retain control this time around.

A critical gauge of the success of the vote could be the abstention rate. A poll published recently in the daily El Watan predicted it would be about 38 percent.

Berbers make up about a third of the population in the former French colony. While most don’t live in the Berber region of Kabyle, east of Algiers, a boycott there could weigh on the abstention rate.

Security forces sent 15,000 reinforcements into the Berber’s restive homeland of Kabyle after bands of youths besieged several town halls in a drive to disrupt the vote, local newspapers reported Wednesday.

Television pictures showed the streets of Kabyle’s regional capital, Tizi-Ouzou, almost deserted with merchants apparently observing a general strike since Monday.

Riots swept through the Berber region last year after a teen-ager was killed while in police custody. At least 60 people died.

In Algiers, in the overcrowded working class neighborhood of Bab el-Oued, official billboards set aside for campaign posters were mostly empty.

``There has been hardly any electioneering here,″ said Khaldi, who is of Berber origin. ``Candidates know we’re not interested. We have too many problems of our own.″

Khaldi’s grocery shop was destroyed by mudslides unleashed by massive floods that ravaged the neighborhood in November, leaving more than 700 dead.

Now, authorities have told him his row of shops, lying on the edge of a field once filled with homes destroyed by the floods, will be walled off.

The misery here was all the more apparent when, seeing a foreigner, crowds of youths called out ``give us visas!″

``Those in power are thieves and liars,″ said Djoghlaf Madjid, a 47-year-old hospital worker who says that he won’t vote.

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has vowed the elections will be free and warned against attempts to undermine them.

But a grass-roots Berber leader, Abrika Belaid, who has been living in hiding for nearly two months, said in an interview published Wednesday in the daily El Watan: ``The ruling powers have reached an impasse and are beginning to panic.″