Robert Fisk: Another win that's too good to be true

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The Independent Online

At a supposed vote in his favour of 90.24 per cent, Abdul Aziz Bouteflika, the 72-year-old Algerian leader, anointed himself President for an unprecedented – and quite possibly unconstitutional – third term yesterday, provoking riots in the Berber region of Kabilye east of Algiers and the scepticism of all but the entire Arab world. The Algerian parliament had been rail-roaded into giving Bouteflika the chance of a third term so that the old boy could sail on the waves of his allegedly democratic mandate into 2012 when – who knows – he may engineer a fourth term. For a President whose French hospitalisation not long ago raised fears for his longevity, success may provide him with the elixir of life.

He certainly follows in the spirit of the Arab electioneering process. In 1993, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt "won" 96.3 per cent of the vote for his third six-year term in office – his fourth victory, in 1999, brought him only 93.79 per cent, bringing him closer to Bouteflika's humble 90.24 per cent. It should be remembered, however, that the Algerian President only claimed a modest 73.8 per cent victory in 1999 – no wonder his Interior Minister was so pleased at yesterday's increased vote.

Of course, few could match Anwar Sadat's extraordinary 99.95 per cent victory in a 1974 Egyptian referendum. Yet Saddam Hussein claimed a 99.96 per cent vote for his Iraqi presidency in 1993 (we still do not know who the treacherous 0.04 per cent were) but scored a crushing 100 per cent in 2002 elections – which surely puts Bouteflika to shame.

In 2005, Mahmoud Abbas scored 62.3 per cent as Palestinian President – which is almost believable – though few can beat Hafez al-Assad's 99.98 per cent for a new seven-year term in the Syrian presidential office in 1999. A mere 219 citizens were foolish enough to vote against him (or cast blank votes).

Bouteflika's presidency has been marked by a lessening of violence in the savage war between his government (the famous and corrupt "pouvoir") and Islamist insurgents, and an amnesty allowed many armed opponents of the government to surrender. However, the amnesty also allowed Algerian security police to go unpunished for torture and massacre after 1992.

Bouteflika's previous two terms have also been marked by massive civilian building projects, funded largely by oil and gas revenues. He faced little real opposition in this most recent poll. Algerians have complained that local authorities refused them building permits if they could not produce stamped voting papers – which may account for the government's claim yesterday of a 74 per cent turnout.

It should be noted, of course, that all the Arab presidents above are – or were – allies of the United States, including Saddam. Bouteflika is another "safe pair of hands" in charge of another front in the "war on terror", even if the phrase is now banned by the White House.