DEMOCRATIZATION is not a well-marked path from one-party rule to participatory politics. Old political habits and cultural influences constantly force unforeseen turns. Algeria is the latest case in point.
President Chadli Benjedid began steering his country toward democratic change in 1988 after food riots had shown the depth of dissatisfaction with the ruling National Liberation Front's socialist policies. Quick to leap through the political opening were Algeria's Islamic fundamentalists.
Last month, the fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won 188 seats in parliament, only 28 shy of a majority. It would have easily picked those up in a Jan. 16 runoff.
But the runoff is off, canceled by the High Security Council, which took power when President Benjedid announced his resignation Jan. 11. This cancellation was anticipated by those who assumed the Army would not allow an Islamic victory. Benjedid's departure, however, was a surprise. He was likely forced out by a military leery of democracy.
Democracy appears threatened whichever way Algeria turns now. Martial law could lead toward military domination, or it could provide a cooling-off period until tensions are eased and elections can again be held. But the Army's worry - an Islamic triumph - won't go away. Repressive measures, such as outlawing the Islamic party, may only add to the fundamentalists' appeal. The FIS has called for resistance to the ruling council's moves, and more radical elements in the party could gain the upper hand.
The other option is to allow the runoffs and hold the FIS to a pledge that it will honor political diversity. A core issue in Algeria is the economy. The country sags under a huge foreign debt and 30 percent unemployment. The fundamentalists have shown little in the way of a credible economic program, and their popularity could fade.
The decision is not easy. But the better option is to give democracy a chance to function - even if the initial winners are people who have little conception of its meaning.