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Algerian President Elected Amid War

By Derek Bracey, The Militant, Vol.59/no.45, 4 December 1995

Algerians voted in presidential elections November 16 under the watchful eye of 200,000 army troops and police. The armed presence sought to prevent protests and counter possible attacks by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and other organizations that pressed for a boycott. Government officials claimed a turnout of 12 million in the country of 25 million, about 75 percent of eligible voters.

Liamine Zéroual, a former general, was announced the winner. Zéroual had been appointed president in January 1994 by the army, which has run the country since 1992.

According to official results, he took more than 61 percent of the vote, easily defeating three other candidates approved by the military.

The government hopes to use the elections to legitimize itself in the eyes of working people, establish stability, and end the four-year-old civil war that has claimed the lives of 40,000 people. Zéroual supporters argue that the voter turnout is a victory over the boycott and represents the end of widespread backing for Islamic fundamentalists.

The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which is banned and whose top leaders are imprisoned, called the boycott along with the National Liberation Front (FLN), the ruling party before the military takeover; the Socialist Forces Front; and the GIA. These groups called the elections a charade because the FIS was legally excluded.

These parties won 80 percent of the vote in the first round of parliamentary elections in December 1991. The FIS, a party whose stated goal is an Islamic republic, won a majority of the seats with 40 percent of the vote.

The military then staged a coup and canceled the election before the second round was due to occur in January 1992. Paris, the former colonial power, backed the takeover fearing that an FIS administration would not be as subservient to French imperialist interests.

Thousands of FIS members were killed or jailed, and the army attacked protests against the coup. The clashes eventually broke into a civil war.

There is no indication the elections will help the government resolve the conflict. What is the meaning of a political exercise from which the main political forces in the country are excluded? Louisa Hanoun, a secular opponent of the government, asked a reporter.

Press reports indicated that many Algerians were intimidated into voting by the massive show of military force and that some were required to produce voter registration cards to obtain other official documents they needed.

Many told the press they voted hoping a way would be found to end the war. Large numbers of people are frustrated with the clashes and the acts of terror by the army and the GIA, including among those who voted for the FIS in 1991.

Authorities reported a heavy turnout among the 5 million Algerians living in France, Germany, and Belgium.

Algerian immigrants in France have been particularly affected in recent months by a crackdown on democratic rights, following a series of bombings there. The government has used the explosions, which have killed seven people and wounded 200, as a pretext for a massive campaign of harassment, intimidation, and deportations.

Paris has continued to back the Zéroual regime in its battle to block the fundamentalist Muslims from establishing a government and in the process to keep in check resistance by working people to government austerity policies. Paris gives the Algerian government $1.2 billion a year in aid and has arranged for more money through the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. The French government hopes the elections will give Zéroual and other capitalist politicians in Algiers leverage to negotiate the setting of parliamentary elections that would involve all political parties - allowing for the FIS to participate but setting conditions to prevent it from winning again.

Not all big-business commentators believe this is possible. An October 26 Wall Street Journal editorial said it is a significant problem that the army and the deadly Armed Islamic Group both still seem to think they can win the war. . . . The only chance for ending Algeria’s war, seems to be one that essentially rolls the clock back to the period in 1992 when the popular will was suppressed.