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Algeria Voters Doubt Any Change

October 23, 1997

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) _ Under tight security and a backdrop of violence, Algerians chose local leaders today for the first time in a nearly 6-year-old Muslim insurgency. Many were skeptical the vote would help end the conflict that has left an estimated 75,000 dead.

Despite a wave of pre-election massacres and bombings in recent weeks that killed hundreds of civilians, including 10 candidates, no violence was reported by midday. But the insurgency was foremost in voters’ minds.

``I’m voting above all for security so that my children don’t die with their throats slit,″ said Farah, a 36-year-old school teacher and mother of three voting in the working class Algiers neighborhood of Kouba.

Security was discreet in polling stations in Algiers itself, where streets were decked with Algerian flags.

But outside the city limits, it intensified. In Eucalyptus, in the so-called triangle of death where most militant attacks have occurred, security was out in force.

The once-powerful Islamic Salvation Front, which had been poised to win the 1992 legislative vote before it was canceled, was barred from today’s balloting and called for a boycott.

As in a June parliamentary vote, pro-government parties were expected to win the local and regional elections.

President Liamine Zeroual, the retired general who called the elections as one of the final steps in his consolidation of power, cast his ballot at a school in the hills of Algiers, near the presidential complex.

Zeroual said he hoped the local and regional elections would ``produce men and women devoted to serving the people.″

By 6 p.m., the Interior Ministry said 55.7 percent of the country’s 16 million voters had gone to the polls.

Hundreds of civilians have died in massacres and bombings in the weeks leading up to the vote. The army was mobilized to guard the country’s 35,700 voting stations, and voters were subjected to searches before entering the precincts.

The elections are meant to finish rebuilding the nation’s political structure, dismantled by the military-backed regime in 1992 in a move that triggered the ruthless Islamic insurgency.

More than 84,000 candidates representing 37 political parties were running for more than 15,000 local and regional posts.

Polls were to stay open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. (3 a.m.-3 p.m. EDT). First results were expected Friday, and final figures by Saturday evening.

Voters in 1992, fed up with corruption and high unemployment in one of the world’s leading gas-producing countries, had favored the Islamic Salvation Front, which seeks to instill a strict Islamic regime.

The army called off those elections when it was clear the Islamic Salvation Front would win them, and scrapped local governments and the Parliament to keep the group from power _ leading Islamic militants to take up arms against the government.

Zeroual has sought to rebuild the local and national government without the Front, while waging a war that has failed to crush the Muslim insurgents.

Zeroual pushed through a constitutional referendum in November that will create a new upper house of parliament, the Council of the Nation. Two-thirds of the members will be chosen by local and regional elected officials, and the other third by Zeroual.

The pro-government National Democratic Rally is expected to dominate today’s elections, along with its allies in the government coalition: the Front for National Liberation of Ahmed Ouyahia and the Movement for Peaceful Society, considered Islamic moderates, led by Mahfoudh Nahnah.

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