Algeria President Re-Elected in Landslide

Posted in Other | 10-Apr-04 | Source: The Associated Press

Filed at 9:30 p.m. ET

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) -- Algeria's president, an ally in the U.S. war on terror, overwhelmingly won re-election in a vote his defeated rival said Friday was a ``sham.''

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was elected to a second term in a landslide -- winning 83 percent of Thursday's vote, the Interior Ministry said in announcing the results.

Former Prime Minister Ali Benflis was a distant second with 8 percent. He alleged there were irregularities ``in thousands of polling stations across the country,'' and vowed to appeal to the Constitutional Council that validates results.

``Never, even under one-party rule, has Algeria seen such a sham election,'' said Benflis, who was prime minister from 2000 until Bouteflika fired him in May 2003.

International observers hailed the vote as a major sign of progress toward reform in a nation emerging from a murderous Islamic insurgency.

President Bush congratulated Bouteflika on his win and ``the Algerian people for their dedication to building a democratic political system,'' the White House said.

The State Department characterized Bouteflika's landslide re-election as ``free from fraud'' and Algeria's first democratic presidential contest.

French President Jacques Chirac also congratulated Bouteflika and said the heated election campaign ``allowed the Algerian people to show its willingness to move forward on the path of democratic pluralism.''

Bouteflika has been trying to raise Algeria's international profile and quell the 12-year insurgency that has claimed an estimated 120,000 lives.

He sought to cool tempers following the heated campaign. ``We must now calm our zeal, forget the wounds that might have been caused,'' the 67-year-old president said on television Friday night.

The army, a powerful force since Algeria gained independence from France in 1962 and a bulwark against the insurgency, for the first time had declared its neutrality. Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, Bouteflika's top ally, said the military kept its promise not to interfere.

``This is proof of a new democratic maturity,'' he said.

Aside from Bouteflika and Algeria's first head of state, Ahmed Ben Bella, all Algerian presidents have been former generals. In Thursday's election, the army allowed soldiers for the first time to vote at regular polling stations, and not their barracks -- a move seen as curbing military influence over the outcome.

``In my view, this was one of the best conducted elections, not just in Algeria, but in Africa and much of the Arab world,'' said Bruce George, an observer with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

``Losers usually allege fraud,'' George said. ``If there was fraud, it has to be investigated -- and it's up to the complainants to identify it.''

Added Anne-Marie Lizin, head of the foreign affairs commission of Belgium's Senate: ``We have the feeling of an enormous step forward -- this vote has reached European standards.''

But Abdel Monem Said, director of the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, Egypt, said Bouteflika's landslide ``bothers me a lot.''

``Any president who can win re-election with a score of 83 percent is a sign that there was a heavy government presence in the voting process,'' he said.

Four other candidates fared even worse than Benflis. Islamic candidate Abdallah Djeballah won slightly less than 5 percent of the vote. The others, each with less than 2 percent, were Said Sadi, whose base in the ethnic Berber region east of Algiers; Louisa Hannoun, a Trotskyist; and Ali Faouzi Rebaine, a little-known politician from the tiny Algeria of Patriots party.

Benflis claimed his party's observers were expelled from some polling stations and said some voters were blocked from casting ballots, although he offered no proof.

Interior Minister Nourredine Zerhouni rejected the charges, saying candidates had representatives at all polling stations and that there were at least 120 election observers from overseas.

Turnout was 59 percent of Algeria's 18 million registered voters.

Algeria stretches from the Mediterranean to the Sahara Desert and has vast oil and gas reserves that make its stability a regional and international imperative.

Along with neighboring Morocco, Algeria worked with the United States against terrorism. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who visited in December, praised Algeria's ``exceptional'' cooperation. But he also said improvement in U.S.-Algerian ties would hinge on how the government conducted the elections.

Single-party rule was abolished in 1989. In the last presidential election in 1999, Bouteflika was guaranteed victory because his six rivals pulled out the night before, claiming massive fraud.

Bouteflika presided over the waning of the insurgency that began in 1992 after the army canceled legislative elections that a now-banned Islamic party was set to win. Many of his supporters point to his success against the insurgents.

At its peak in the mid-1990s, about 1,200 people were killed monthly, with villages sometimes completely butchered. In 2000, he offered amnesty to Islamic militants not guilty of violent crimes, and about 6,000 accepted.

Under his tenure, the economy has grown about 4 percent a year, and Algeria has succeeded in trimming its foreign debt by more than 20 percent, according to State Department figures. But critical economic reforms have lagged.

Housing shortages and more than 30 percent unemployment remain chronic problems, pushing many young Algerians to emigrate, often illegally, to Europe. About 75 percent of Algeria's 32 million people are under 30.