Algerian leader wins poll with 'laughable' 83 per cent of vote

The Algerian President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, swept back to power yesterday with what his opponents insisted was an indecently high score of 83 per cent of the vote. The presidential election, billed as the first truly open poll in the country's history, was seen as an important test of Algeria's return to peace and stability after years of murderous civil war and de facto military dictatorship.

The Algerian President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, swept back to power yesterday with what his opponents insisted was an indecently high score of 83 per cent of the vote. The presidential election, billed as the first truly open poll in the country's history, was seen as an important test of Algeria's return to peace and stability after years of murderous civil war and de facto military dictatorship.

Mr Bouteflika's supporters said his impressive total reflected the gratitude of voters for the steep fall in violence since the 67-year-old President was elected in 1999. His opponents said the result was "laughable" and proved the country was still being manipulated behind the scenes by military commanders, despite their promise to remain neutral for the first time.

"One has a tendency to laugh at the announcement of this result, but we are crying for the future of the country," said Soufiane Djilali, spokesman for the main challenger, Ali Benflis, a former prime minister. Mr Benflis, 59, had been expected to run his former boss close, and maybe force a second round of voting in two weeks. The official results announced yesterday gave him 8 per cent of the vote. Abdallah Djeballah, candidate for a moderate Islamist party, scored just under 5 percent.

Three other candidates failed to top 2 per cent. Supporters of M. Bouteflika began raucous celebrations in the streets of cities and large towns as soon as the polls closed on Thursday, and long before the results were released. Government officials insisted the election was clean and said all parties had observers at polling stations and international monitors had been allowed to roam the country.

"For our country it is unprecedented that we'll have a stable executive elected by a wide consensus," Abdeslam Bouchoureb, one of Mr Bouteflika leading campaign organisers, said. "It should get Algeria out of its crisis for good." The Benflis camp said they would challenge the result in the courts. "We've had multiple reports of fraud," Mr Djilali said. "Ballot boxes were swapped."

Mr Bouteflika was elected unopposed in 1999 when all his opponents withdrew on the eve of the poll, complaining about manifest manipulation of the election by the army. The previous election was won by a general-turned-politician. The one before that, in 1992, was cancelled by the military on the eve of the poll, when it appeared certain an Islamist party would win.

A bloody civil war between Islamist militants and the army followed, in which at least 100,000 people are believed to have died. Former government officials and members of the intelligence services have said some massacres in outlying villages, or murders of prominent, lay and pro-western members of Algerian society, were ordered, or manipulated, by the military. Since Mr Bouteflika was elected five years ago, there has been a sharp drop in violence and a modest improvement in the economy.

The President's opponents complain he has blocked the emergence of a truly free press, interfered in the legal process and allowed corruption to thrive, killing all chances of an economic revival, despite Algeria's large oil reserves.

Less publicly, opponents claim the real power in Algeria remains with what they call "the deciders", a small group of military commanders whose families have built a large stake in the country's business and natural resources.

More neutral political observers, in Algeria and France, say a narrow victory for the President in this election would have been plausible. A score of more than 80 per cent was harder to swallow.

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