Algerian national radio had just announced that 55 per cent of the electorate, more than 8 million men and women, had already cast their vote. That was the mystery.
At 10.30 in the morning, I had come across an equally deserted voting station in the Hydra suburb of Algiers, another old French lycee, built in 1874, a fragile, gentle place of blue and white tiles and pale blue shutters, guarded this time by an equally blue-uniformed gendarmerie weighed down with rifles and pistols.
A solitary man was in the booth but the headmistress proudly announced that 69 men and 30 women (out of a total electorate of 2,300) had cast their vote in the past two-and-a-half hours. Yes, she was for a new constitution. No, there could be no dialogue with Muslim assassins. "You can't change a country with a magic wand," she told us. "You have to kill these people. It's the only way."
Similar views were expressed in Belfort, an all-female voting station, where a functionary hurried to the local headmistress with a document in one hand and a calculator in the other. Of 1,346 women electors, 628 had voted, he declared, representing a 46.65 per cent turnout. "We all voted `yes'," the three schoolteachers chorused. "We all like President Zeroual." What was one to make of all this? Were the rest of Algeria's 33,998 voting stations as crowded as our two appeared to be empty? Of such mysteries are Algerian politics made.
So is fear. For while the Algerian masses trouped in so ghost-like a fashion to register their vote, the usual sinister rumours washed around them. A "terrorist" had been shot dead outside Algiers post office. A passer-by had seen a car being towed from the scene, its seat covered in blood. Or was there just a traffic accident?
The wife of an army officer had no doubts about a neighbour's son in Mouradia. "He cannot sleep at night since they killed his father several weeks ago. They cut off the father's head, you see, and stuck it on top of a road sign."
Another woman, fiercely denying any wrongdoing by the authorities, described how a pregnant woman had been caught making a bomb in a city centre apartment and had fallen to police gunfire as she and four men fought the gendarmerie who surrounded them.
If violence kept Algerians from the polls - and the government's statistics suggested, incredibly, that the vote was yesterday 10 per cent higher than last year's genuinely popular presidential elections - it also sent them to the polling station.
One woman spoke of a car bomb in Blida last week. "There was a beggar woman next to the car - she was just vapourised. Now that the massacres have started in the villages south of Algiers, the people are fleeing their homes. Can you imagine? Thirty-two women and children killed in one village when their menfolk were away?"
Ahmed Djeddai, the deputy leader of the Front des Forces Socialistes (FFS), has urged his supporters to vote against the constitution rather than follow other opposition advice to boycott the poll. "We do not want the government to be able to say that 99 per cent of those who voted wanted the constitution," he said yesterday. "But make no mistake, this constitution is supposed to institutionalise the authorities. We are returning to the one-party state. There was no electoral campaign. At Setif, our supporters were stopped by the army from putting up posters urging people to vote `No'. There was a formal prohibition against us."
Near to the President's offices, according to Mr Djeddai, police fired in the air when FFS members tried to paste their electoral messages to the walls. "We were told to take them down immediately. Three of our members in Boumerdes have been arrested - do you call this an electoral campaign?
"There is only one single line of political thought put out through a single television channel. We have had no access to Algerian television or radio. Yes, we can talk in the newspapers - but the press reaches only 1 per cent of the population."
The new constitution, if approved, will give the President (and former general) Liamine Zeroual an effective veto over a newly elected parliament because he will appoint one-third of the members to an upper house which will have to approve all laws with the vote of three-quarters of its members. It will also ban any party from standing on the basis of religion although Islamic Hamas, which effectively supports the President, appears to be in no danger of losing its identity.
The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which was declared illegal after the second round of parliamentary elections in 1992 - which it would have won, will be wiped for ever from the political scene; or so at least is the government's intention.Reuse content