- The Washington Times - Friday, May 31, 2002

ALGIERS Algerian voters, skeptical about democracy and intimidated by 23 killings overnight, turned out in small numbers yesterday for legislative elections in which moderate Islamic parties expected to make major gains.

Election authorities extended voting hours in many places in an effort to achieve the 50-percent turnout required for the election to be valid. Results were to be announced this morning.

Boycotts called by ethnic-Berber parties cut participation to as low as 1 percent or 2 percent in some Berber areas marked by violent clashes with police and massive strikes enforced by mobs.

The Rally for National Democracy, which is loyal to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and was the largest party in the outgoing chamber, was expected to suffer heavy losses, slipping to third or fourth place.

Informal polls showed it would be replaced as the largest party by the National Liberation Front, which ruled from independence in 1962 until 1989 but would likely continue to support the policies of Mr. Bouteflika.

The main Islamic party participating in the vote, the moderate Movement of Society for Peace (MSP), was pegged to finish second, and another new Islamic party could finish as high as third.

The hard-line Islamic Salvation Front, a fundamentalist party that a decade ago threatened to win elections and impose an Islamic state was outlawed in March 1992.

The MSP, popularly nicknamed "Hamas" despite its moderate policies, has been part of the ruling coalition and declared it was satisfied with guarantees by the Interior Ministry that the voting would be honest.

But other opposition parties joined the autonomy-minded Berbers in a boycott of the election, accusing the government of corruption and fraud.

In Washington, the State Department declined to judge the fairness of the elections, but welcomed progress toward greater democracy while criticizing the violence.

The turnout may have been further depressed by the overnight killings of 23 nomads in western Algeria, reportedly at the hands of the Islamic extremists whose revolt, largely suppressed, has claimed 100,000 lives in the past 10 years.

Justice Minister Ahmed Ouyahia said in an interview yesterday that there are about 1,000 extremists still at large. Thousands more have surrendered and been released under an amnesty, he said.

Voting took place peacefully in the capital. But in the ethnic-Berber region of Kabylie, militants seeking autonomy fought with police, stoned voting places and prevented many from casting ballots.

At a voting station in an elementary school in the Bab el Oued district of the capital, Algiers, only 12 persons had voted by noon out of 287 registered voters.

One of those voters, Salah Adjerad, 58, said he had done so "to do my duty," but he had no idea what he wanted from a new government.

Khddaaoug Hameg, a middle-aged woman, said, "I vote for my future and would never boycott." She said health was her main concern. Other Algerians seemed reluctant to discuss politics.

"The youth of Algeria do not enter into politics. We know nothing," said Samir Benrejdal, 33, sipping a small glass of coffee outside a cafe in the Bab el Oued working-class neighborhood. "I want an end to terrorists only that."


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