Leading Article: At last, a chance for democracy in Algeria

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TOMORROW ALGERIA holds its first elections since 1992, when the army overturned the victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). There is little chance that the vote will be free and fair - not least because the FIS is not allowed to field candidates. But the election of a successor to President Liamine Zeroual is a step towards the resumption of democratic politics in a country recovering from seven years of civil war.

Abdelaziz Bouteflika, an Algerian foreign minister in the Seventies, is almost certain to win the election. He is backed by both the National Liberation Front - which led the opposition to French colonialism - and, more importantly, by the generals, who are the country's real rulers.

The 680,000 Algerian voters resident in France have been able to vote since Saturday. In Algeria there is a worry about vote-rigging, because vulnerable mobile ballot boxes are to be used in rural areas and soldiers will vote unseen in their barracks. None the less, the country's 15 million eligible voters will have a genuine choice of candidates.

Mr Bouteflika's opponents include three who are credible challengers. They are Mouloud Hamrouche, the reformist prime minister from 1989 to 1991; Hocine Ait Ahmed, the 78-year-old socialist with a reputation for incorruptibility and the charisma conferred by his membership of les neuf historiques, the nine original leaders of the independence war; and, the most interesting challenger, Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi, the former foreign minister who has been backed by the leaders of the FIS in hiding abroad.

The army's cancellation of the 1992 election was not only the catalyst for the civil war, it was also taken by Islamic movements across the Arab world to show that democracy was a sham and that there was no alternative to violence.

The Algerian conflict was primarily between the security forces on the one side and Islamic groups, including the FIS and the shadowy Armed Islamic Group, on the other. The crisis reached its nadir during the holy month of Ramadan last year when it was rumoured that security forces were massacring civilians.

Seven years and the murder of 77,000 people later, the government appears to have brought the country back under its control. The army is no longer involved in terror, and massacres committed by the Islamists have diminished in frequency and are confined to rural areas.

The FIS may have miscalculated in backing Mr Ibrahimi. If he does not gain much support - and there are signs that voters are apathetic - the FIS will look like a busted flush. If he does well, the army may use it as another excuse for suppressing democracy. Although there are grounds for pessimism about the outcome of the elections, in a country trying to cope with a dramatically rising population and the collapse of oil revenues, democracy is the only hope for a resumption of stability and prosperity.