Algerians hope election will heal the wounds of civil war

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THEY WILL not be fully "free and fair" - certainly not as Western democracies understand the term. Indeed, the winner to all intents and purposes is already known. Nor can they on their own resolve the country's huge problems. Even so, after seven years of civil war, this week's elections to find a successor to the outgoing President Liamine Zeroual could prove a small step towards normal politics in Algeria.

Polls have been open since Saturday for the 680,000 Algerian voters resident in France. On Thursday they will be joined by the 15 million eligible voters in Algeria. And when the votes are counted, it would be a miracle if the winner is not Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the 1970s foreign minister now backed by the former ruling party, the FLN - and, more important, by the army generals who ultimately run the country.

The elections represent the best hope thus far for national reconciliation since the start of the ferocious war between the regime and Islamic fundamentalist insurgents in 1992 after the cancellation of elections that the subsequently banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was about to win.

Seven years and the death of more than 70,000 people later, the government appears to have gained a decisive upper hand. Though there are still sporadic deadly attacks - mostly in the countryside and against members of the security forces - the killing rate has dropped dramatically.

But the price has been the loss of most of what little public confidence there was that Algeria's rulers could tackle the country's problems. The election campaign has been low-key to the point of listlessness; the main fear is that great portions of the electorate, convinced nothing will change, will not bother to vote, rendering the result meaningless.

If so, it would a pity - because for once the voters have a real choice of candidates and platforms. If Mr Bouteflika is the man of the establishment and le pouvoir - as the cabal of top military officers and business figures that runs the country is known - he is not the official candidate of the army.

Three of his opponents, meanwhile, offer a genuine opposition. They are Mouloud Hamrouche, the former reformist prime minister between 1989 and 1991; the former foreign minister Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi, who has been formally backed by the leaders abroad of the FIS; and Hocine Ait Ahmed, the 78-year-old socialist with a reputation for spotless integrity, and a prestige conferred by his place among les neuf historiques, the nine original leaders of the 1954-62 independence war against the French. If Mr Bouteflika does not win outright on the first ballot, his run-off opponent will be one of these.

Even so, the "free and fair" poll promised by President Zeroual is unlikely to come about. He himself was levered prematurely out of office, a sign that Algeria's secretive and manipulative ways still flourish. Several would-be candidates were barred from standing for no justifiable apparent reason, while no foreign observers will monitor proceedings.

"Without monitors, even if the vote is really fair, it risks not being accepted as such," warns George Joffe, director of studies at the Royal Institute for International Affairs.

Though several candidates had asked for observers, foreign governments, including France and the United States, anxious not to jeopardise their economic interests in Algeria, did not press the point with the regime.

There are also worries over fraudulent returns from the mobile ballot boxes used in rural areas, and the voting procedures in army barracks, at a time when the security forces have to deal with a continuing, albeit much diminished, security problem. Above all there is the dilemma posed by the Islamic movement.

Though the FIS may not be the force it was, it is still one without which no election in Algeria can be truly representative. The endorsement of Taleb Ibrahimi is a gamble and, in the view of some observers, a mistake. "If he doesn't do well, it would be a major loss of face for the FIS," Saad Djebbah, a leading Algerian analyst says.

"But if he does really well, it will play into the army's hands. They will simply warn it's 1991-92 all over again."