Algeria uneasy after one-man election

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The Independent Online
AN UNEASY calm prevailed in Algeria last night after Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the army-backed candidate, won his empty and inevitable victory in Thursday's Presidential election from which all his rivals had withdrawn in protest.

Hours after the Interior Ministry declared the former foreign minister the winner with almost 74 per cent of the vote, riot police sealed off a square in central Algiers, ahead of a demonstration of supporters of the six opposition candidates who pulled out on Wednesday evening, barely 12 hours before the polls opened.

In the event, only about 500 people attended the rally. Despite saying he would take office only if he won a solid majority after a convincing turnout, Mr Bouteflika, 63, was expected to take over from the President Liamine Zeroual a week after the result had been confirmed by the Constitutional Court.

Far more controversial than his margin of support, however, was the turnout, a more reliable indicator of possible political trouble to come. Although the Interior Ministry said 60 per cent of the 17.5 million eligible electors had voted, the true figure is likely to have been considerably lower.

According to Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi, a former candidate who has the backing of the banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), the outcome was a sham. He claimed that he and the five other candidates who had pulled out had been notified by the authorities that ballot rigging on a massive scale was taking place. The true turnout was only 25 per cent, Mr Ibrahimi alleged. "I refused to take part in an immoral process the people knew was a fraud."

The Interior Minister, Abdelmalek Sellal, said the election had been "entirely legitimate", and accused the six of imperilling Algeria's return to political normality. He appealed to the outside world to recognise the result.

France, the former colonial power and home to a large Algerian community, voiced its concern, while human rights organisations and other groups demanded a re-run of the election - this time with international observers to make sure proceedings were clean.

The outcome was a "bitter revenge" for Mr Bouteflika, the French daily Le Monde said, rather than the triumphant comeback he had hoped for after 20 years in political exile. Most important now will be the reaction of the Islamic radicals.

The cancellation in 1992 of elections the FIS seemed certain to win ushered in seven years of civil war, in which 70,000 people died. With violence on the wane, it was hoped that this election would open the door to national reconciliation. Instead it has generated cynicism and resignation, underlining how ultimate power remains in the hands of the army.