Algerians vote in one-horse election race

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The Independent Online
ALGERIANS VOTED to choose the country's first civilian president since 1965 yesterday - knowing even before they cast their votes who the winner would be. The race was reduced to little more than farce after six of the seven candidates pulled out, fearing that the balloting was rigged.

The single remaining candidate, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, viewed as the choice of the powerful military, said that he would accept victory only if backed by a large majority of the electorate and a massive turnout. Early polling was moderate but this did not deter Mr Bouteflika's campaign managers from insisting that the turnout would be sufficient to confer legitimacy on any victory.

The anti-army figures in the ballot pulled out in protest at alleged fraud in early polling for security forces and at mobile stations in Algeria's vast Saharan expanse. However, it also appeared to be a revolt against the army-backed order that has bred fraud and corruption since Algeria gained independence from France in 1962.

The withdrawal was a blow to hopes that the voting would heal divisions in a nation caught up in a cycle of violence since 1992, when the Islamic insurgency began. Some 75,000 people have been killed since then.

The sole candidate, meanwhile, ruled out any form of power-sharing if elected. Asked if he might consider forming a government of reconciliation with opposition figures, as has been mooted, he said there was no question of a dialogue with the Islamic Salvation Front as such, but he left the door open to informal contacts. "I shall not negotiate with a dissolved party. On the other hand, I shall negotiate with individuals."

Polling stations kept all seven names in the ballot, so people could still choose someone other than Mr Bouteflika - perhaps even forcing a second round.

The six who withdrew appealed yesterday to their supporters to "follow through with their shared effort calmly and peacefully". The Socialist Forces Front said that demonstrations against the alleged fraud were planned for central Algiers today.

The candidates, who spanned the political spectrum, pulled out after President Liamine Zeroual refused to discuss the claims of fraud, suggesting that they file formal complaints. In a nationwide address, Mr Zeroual - a retired general stepping down 18 months before his five-year term ends - sharply criticised the move and ordered the election to continue.

Mr Bouteflika has been billed in the press as the "candidate of consensus", a derogatory reference to his backing from a wide swath of the establishment - including the National Liberation Front which ruled Algeria for three decades, the powerful UGTA union, and a moderate Islamic party in the coalition government.

Despite the setback, the presidential campaign has not been marred by the bloodshed of the 1995 general election. Security at polling booths was all but invisible - a sign of the dwindling violence in the region. In previous votes, heavily armed soldiers kept watch.

However, 10 people were reported killed on Monday by anti-government guerrillas in the western province of Mascara, and Algerian newspapers reported several clashes between government troops and Muslim rebels.