Algerian election chaos as candidates quit

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The Independent Online
TODAY'S SCHEDULED presidential elections in Algeria were thrown into chaos last night as the six anti-army candidates withdrew, alleging fraud - a move that left the military's choice, the former foreign minister Abdelaziz Bouteflika, unchallenged in a vote that risks being a farce.

In an emergency television broadcast, outgoing President Liamine Zeroual said the vote would none the less go ahead. But Mr Bouteflika insisted he would only accept office if there was a high turnout and he scored a convincing majority: "Otherwise I'll go home."

The six men took their decision after President Zeroual refused their request to cancel voting by army, police and customs personnel, which they said was rigged. They had started voting on Monday. Complicating matters even further, polling has been under way since Saturday among the 680,000 eligible Algerian voters resident in France.

"The people gave us their confidence and we were not willing to play with it," Youcef Khatib, one of the six, declared. "We were left with two options, a rigged election or the respect of the people. We chose the people."

In a statement, the withdrawing candidates accused the military authorities that run Algeria of breaking their promise to organise free and transparent elections, and vowed to mobilise public opinion behind their cause. They urged peaceful protest marches across the country tomorrow.

The statement was signed by the highest-calibre field of candidates for public office in the country since the cancellation of the 1992 election, which the now-outlawed Islamic Salvation Front seemed certain to win. That decision sparked seven years of civil war in which some 70,000 people have died.

All the signatories oppose, to varying degrees, the present government, and urge reconciliation between the lay and Islamic wings of Algerian society. Mr Bouteflika, too, is running on a platform of reconciliation, but his election under these circumstances would only deepen the country's divisions.

No foreign monitors are in Algeria to investigate the vote- rigging charges. The accusations have been rejected by the Interior Ministry, which accused the six non-runners of plunging the political process into more discredit and distrust, and "undermining an orderly and transparent" election.

Although Mr Bouteflika had been expected to win comfortably, the vote had been seen as a chance for Algeria to take the first steps towards a more open and pluralistic political system.

It would also have been an indicator of how much support is still enjoyed by the Salvation Front, whose military wing has long since observed a ceasefire in the civil war. Most attacks now are believed to be carried out by the extremist Islamic Armed Group.