PARIS — ALGERIA'S first national multiparty elections Thursday will be watched closely as an indicator of prospects for democracy across North Africa and the Arab world.Yet an event that finds itself bathed in a spotlight of hope for a region still dominated by autocratic leaders and single-party regimes is being greeted with a lack of enthusiasm and even anguish by Algeria's 18 million people. These elections will allow, for the first time since the country's independence in 1962, a full spectrum of political groups - including the Islamic movement - to vie for seats in what remains a single-party parliament. But the vote's significance risks being lost in a generalized gloom over economic conditions. With unemployment topping 20 percent, housing almost impossible to find for a burgeoning urban population, prices rising fast, and many products hard to find, many Algerians hold out scant hope for the foreseeable future. As a result, observers expect a disappointingly high rate of voter abstention. "The stakes of these elections for Algeria, the Maghreb [North Africa], and even the Arab world are extremely high," says Ali El-Kenz, a social economist and director of the Center for Applied Economics Studies in Algiers. "Repercussions from the experience will play a role in determining whether democratization advances or retreats across the region." The Islamic parties' performance will be most closely watched in this vein. "There is a feeling of exhilaration and joy among people striving for democracy's advancement in the region that Algeria is holding these elections," says Moncef Ben M'Rad, editor-in-chief of Realites, a Tunisian political weekly. "There is equally an underlying apprehension, however, that if this leads to a [Islamic] fundamentalist victory, there will be less democracy and more instability in all our countries."
Islamic impact The Islamic parties' score in Algeria's two-round election process, set to end with a runoff vote Jan. 16, will have a direct effect on similar groups throughout the Arab world, experts agree. "If the Islamic movement achieves a majority, it will give instant weight to efforts by [movements] in other countries to assume power through democratic channels," says Mr. El-Kenz. "Lack of such a mandate will reinforce those who support getting there by other means." Just what such "other means" might entail is unclear, but they may include extremist violence against the government, such as the late November ambush of a military post near the border with Tunisia that left more than two dozen dead. Yet despite the high stakes - or perhaps in part because of them - the ballot box is not the symbol of optimism and promising change the government of Prime Minister Sid Ahmed Ghozali hoped it would be. "People have a vague feeling that Algeria is at a turning point," says El-Kenz, "but instead of anticipation there is a foreboding that the election aftermath will be just as unstable and difficult." Algeria is not alone in finding itself mired in defeatism even as it struggles to install a democratic, multiparty system. In Eastern Europe as well, prospects for long-range economic difficulties have often dampened enthusiasm for new democratic freedoms. In some first-time elections the economic scene has led to discouragingly low voter turnouts. What does set Algeria apart, adding to its interest for Arab regions and beyond, is the electoral participation of its Islamic movement and thus the addition of a controversial cultural element. Some governments, as in Tunisia, hold firmly that religious parties have no part in the political process. Some experts maintain that if the Arab world is the last region bordering democratic Europe to hold on to generally discredited autocratic regimes, it is because countries in the region have never separated church and state. Others, like Paris political sociologist Burhan Ghalioun, say the Arab region's general resistance to a universal democratic evolution is tied not to culture but to the historical process, dating from the last century, that resulted in strong, one-party states.
'Us or chaos' Emphasis on the cultural argument, these experts say, only reinforces the argument of strong central leaders and a small elite that "it's either us or chaos." Algeria's experience may end up providing some answers. But already its Islamic movement is showing some of the strains of participating in the democratic process. What was generally a monolithic movement before multiparty local elections in 1990 is now divided into three parties. After a long hesitation, during which many of its activists brandished signs reading "Islamic state without a vote," the movement's dominant Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) finally decided Dec. 14 to participate in the elections.
Imprisoned leaders With top FIS leaders still in prison for fomenting the riots last June that forced the government to postpone the elections and call a four-month state of siege, the party is now run by a more moderate leader, Abdel Kader Hashani. Observers believe Mr. Hashani was able to persuade a divided party to participate for two reasons: that "good behavior" would get the FIS leadership out of prison after the elections, and that a failure to participate could leave the FIS marginalized. The FIS was forced by the government - and by clear public approval for the government's tough line against any source of fresh instability - to back down from plans to hold the kinds of urban marches that led to violence in June. At the same time, however, the FIS is the only party that has registered candidates in all 430 legislative districts. Observers generally believe the party will win about a third of the vote. The FIS strategy seems to be that indecisive results will leave the country in turmoil and force anticipated presidential elections, something that has been its goal all along. For Mr. Ghozali and President Chadli Benjedid, on the other hand, the hope is that a two-thirds non-FIS vote will allow the formation of a coalition government to see the country through to better economic times and an ebbing of the Islamic movement.