Algerian Islamists set to score in polls

March 6, 2012 at 2:26 PM
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ALGIERS, Algeria, March 6 (UPI) -- Newly legalized Islamic parties in Algeria, which fought a savage war with Muslim fundamentalists throughout the 1990s, are likely to score heavily in parliamentary elections scheduled for May.

The election is shaping up to be a showdown between secular military-backed government parties and the Islamists, who were robbed of an election triumph in the 1992 elections when the generals canceled the ballot.

It was the heavy hand of the military in voiding the election, in which the Islamists had taken an unassailable lead in the first of two voting rounds in December 1991, that triggered the ferocious conflict in which an estimated 200,000 people died, many in massacres perpetrated by both sides.

By dint of some adroit political footwork by 74-year-old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, including limited reforms and hefty financial handouts, Algeria narrowly avoided being engulfed in the wave of pro-democracy uprising that swept the Arab world in January 2011 and led to the downfall of four longtime dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

Bouteflika, who championed reconciliation to end the civil war, also ended a 19-year-old state of emergency and pledged a free press and media.

But the former French colony, a major energy exporter, remains volatile and the government is under mounting pressure to produce democratic reforms, eliminate rampant corruption and energize an under-performing economy in the wake of the Arab Spring revolutions.

Bouteflika has vowed the May 10 polls will signal the start of a new era in Algerian politics. But the red flags are up.

"We hope that we can go toward a democratic system peacefully … but if fraud is committed during the upcoming elections, it will be the biggest factor that will push the people toward an explosion," warned Abdallah Djaballah, leader of the Front for Justice and Development, a moderate Islamist party but implacably opposed to Bouteflika's government.

The Islamist groups' expectations are high in light of their co-religionists' triumphs in Tunisia, Morocco and Libya over the last turbulent year.

Most of the Islamist groups are considered to be moderate in their political ideologies.

They demand social justice, the elimination of corruption, a more equitable sharing of the proceeds from Algeria's oil and gas resources. None say they want to impose Shariah -- Muslim religious law -- on the country of 35 million.

Abdelaziz Belkhadem, a close Bouteflika associate and leader of the National Liberation Front that has dominated Algerian politics since the 1954-62 independence war against France, expects the Islamists to do well in May but fall short of a parliamentary majority.

"Islamist political parties should obtain between 35 and 40 percent of the votes," he predicted.

"Islamists will be a prominent force in the new parliament, but they may well fail to win a plurality of seats," Oxford Analytica said in a Feb. 28 analysis.

"They are deeply divided and have yet to recover their reputation following the debilitating effect of the civil war.

"Islamist leaders are trying to join forces in the hope of winning a majority of seats … The regime will almost certainly try to prevent any one Islamist party from emerging victorious."

But the Islamists say that Algerians, fed up with the rule of the "pouvoir," or power, the cabal of generals and their political allies who seized control in 1992 and have ruled ever since, are ready to press for change at the ballot box -- if the elections aren't rigged.

In this they are encouraged by clear signs that for the first time in decades the ruling elite, aghast at the overthrow of powerful dictatorships and the bloodbath in Syria as that country's regime battles for survival, is finally having to come to terms with allowing Islamists a role in political life.

This was evidenced by the warm reception that Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the once-banned al-Nahda party that now rules in Tunisia, received in Algeria when he visited in October.

"Algeria has realized that it cannot afford to isolate itself amid the new regional reality," Oxford Analytica observed.

But the bitter legacy of the civil war and its horrendous atrocities still pervades Algeria, undermining the Islamists' political prospects.

Analysts say the real political test will be when the ailing Bouteflika's third term ends in 2014. The current frontrunner to succeed him is Belkhadem, a former premier who has good ties with the Islamists.

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