Algerian vote promises end to seven years of brutal civil war

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The Independent Online
ALGERIA VOTED yesterday in a crucial referendum which its reformist President Abdelaziz Bouteflika hopes will bolster his authority and promote an end to the country's brutal seven year civil war which has left 100,000 dead.

Given the beguilingly simple question on the ballot paper - "Do you agree with the President's approach to restore peace and civil concord?" - there was little doubt that the answer would be a resounding "Yes".

More important was the turnout, whose size will determine just how large a vote of confidence his people, cowed and disillusioned by a savage civil war against Islamic guerrillas, are prepared to give President Bouteflika.

According to state media, some 30 per cent of the registered electorate voted in the first three hours polling stations were open. That was almost twice as many as had done so in April's Presidential election, which was tarred by the mass withdrawal of Mr Bouteflika's six main opponents in protest at alleged vote-rigging by the military.

Yesterday, was his chance not only to win approval of his policy of national reconciliation, including an amnesty for many Islamic insurgents, but also a personal mandate to press through change, if needs be against the wishes of the senior army commanders who have always held ultimate power in Algeria. Yesterday, President Bouteflika, who was a former foreign minister in the 1960s and 1970s under President Houari Boumedienne, signalled that he intended the referendum to be but a beginning.

"I solemnly pledge I will change things in Algeria from top to bottom," he said as he cast his vote in Algiers.

He pledged to use full constitutional powers which had never been exercised by his immediate Army-sanctioned predecessors, and vowed: "I will regain those powers completely, because they have not been practised in full in the past."

The most dramatic sign of his determination to set a new course for Algeria was the sacking last month of nearly half the country's provincial governors, on the grounds of incompetence and corruption.

Mr Bouteflika has also set up a committee to reform the judiciary, and sought to rebuild bridges with the outside world, not least the former colonial power, France.

Next week he will break new ground by attending the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Most important of all perhaps, he is now saying things long known but hitherto unmentionable.

"Drugs, black market trading, collusion by border officers, corruption, child beggars and immorality are everywhere," he said in his final campaign speech on Wednesday. "Algerians everywhere are frightened ... everything in the country is ill."