- The Washington Times - Friday, April 10, 2009

ALGIERS, ALGERIA (AP) - President Abdelaziz Bouteflika hailed his landslide re-election for a third term as a “lesson in democracy” on Friday, but opposition politicians and independent media alleged fraud at the polls, and the U.S. government expressed concern.

Interior Minister Noureddine Yazid Zerhouni said Bouteflika won 90.24 percent of votes in Thursday’s election. Opponents had called for a boycott of the vote, which was marred by six terror attacks, one of which left a police officer dead, and unrest that left several polling stations burned.

Authorities put the turnout at more than 74 percent _ unusually high for Algeria. Nearly 13 million of Algeria’s 20 million registered voters cast their ballot for the president, Zerhouni said.

“This truly is an eloquent lesson in democracy,” Bouteflika said in remarks carried by the official APS news agency shortly after results were announced. He thanked Algerians for the “precious confidence” vote they granted him.

The 72-year-old president has suffered bouts of ill health. In power since 1999, Bouteflika was able to seek a third mandate after a constitutional change engineered by his backers in an all-but-closed political system. Critics have said this could make him president for life.

Bouteflika has repeatedly said he needed a massive victory to continue his policy of national reconciliation and reconstruction following an Islamist insurgency. The violence has left up to 200,000 people dead since 1992.

He also promised to launch a $150 billion investment plan and create 3 million jobs during his third term at the helm of this North African nation, which faces a lingering al-Qaida-linked insurgency, social unrest and a sluggish economic growth, despite large reserves of oil and gas.

His victory Thursday was a record for an Algerian president since the former one-party state first allowed opposition parties in 1989.

Observers and Bouteflika’s five, low-profile challengers were baffled.

“There was a lot of fraud,” said Jelloul Joudi, campaign chief for candidate Louisa Hanoune, runner-up in the election with a meager 4 percent of the vote.

“I’m scandalized by Zerhouni’s contempt,” said another challenger, Mohammed Said, who received less than 1 percent.

The interior minister told journalists that the few alleged cases of ballot stuffing reported to him would have had a “negligible” impact on the general result. “Nobody has provided us with precise and concrete cases,” he said.

Faycal Metaoui, an editorialist at the French-language El Watan newspaper, said there remained “huge doubts” about both the turnout and result. The daily reported that sporadic unrest continued Friday in the Bouira area east of the capital.

The African Union, which is part of a 200-strong monitoring mission with the Arab League and the Islamic Conference, congratulated Algeria for the “freedom and transparency” of the elections.

Clusters of Bouteflika’s supporters drove through the capital honking car horns and waving Algerian flags. But most people in the streets appeared indifferent to a result they had viewed as a given.

“I don’t even know why Bouteflika bothered to run,” said Mohammed Belkhabas, heading to the mosque for the weekly Friday prayers. He said he hadn’t voted.

One opposition party that called for boycott, the Rally for Culture and Democracy, said youth tried to storm its Algiers headquarters after the announcement of the result. A party statement said clashes occurred when Bouteflika supporters tried to pull out the black flag the party was flying above its offices in sign of mourning for Algeria’s faltering democracy. “Corruption and violence are echoing fraud from day one” of Bouteflika’s new term in office, the statement said.

In Washington, the U.S. government said it was looking forward to continue working with Bouteflika. But State Department spokesman Richard Aker said of the fraud allegations: “We are concerned about these issues, and we want the government to address them.”

Bouteflika began his political career at age 25 after Algeria gained independence from France in 1962.

In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy offered “warm and friendly” congratulations regarding Friday’s election result.

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