Peaceful Vote in Algeria Boosts Hope, Trust in Troubled Land

WITH a peaceful presidential election behind them, people throughout this war-weary Mediterranean capital are basking in unseasonably sunny skies and life's simple pleasures.

In Bab el Oud, on the Bay of Algiers, where inescapable violence and repression have disfigured the landscape, a handful of men are out fishing for the first time in years. "No, we haven't caught a thing," they tell a visitor. "We're just happy to sit here with our poles in the sea."

Held in sheer desperation, Algeria's presidential vote last week apparently delivered what demonstrable military force could not: renewed trust and a sense of release.

The election of "incumbent" President Liamine Zeroual - a retired Army general installed early last year as head of state by his colleagues in the military and intelligence services - was no surprise in itself. The run-up to his victory was fraught with dirty tricks. And General Zeroual's three contenders were more or less complicit with le pouvoir, Algerian slang for the powers that be.

But the search for a legitimate solution to the country's calamitous flirtation with economic and political ruin has forever altered the monolithic nature of this government.

The ruling clique of generals - who seized control in a 1992 coup after Algeria's first democratic experiment was about to leave them on the outside looking in - only reluctantly agreed to a return to the electoral process, as proposed by Zeroual himself.

But once the campaign was set in motion, all four presidential candidates promised a break from the past - a past of war among Islamist militants, the country's security forces, and other armed groups, that has cost 50,000 lives.

So, while the regime has landed on its feet - albeit the worse for wear - the Algerian people have spoken, and their mandate is clear.

"Our people want peace," Abdelnour Harbi, civil servant and a member of military security, says of the outcome. "That is the fundamental change."

Zeroual's campaign platform did not spell out a formula for dialogue with the country's political Islamists. But in order to resolve the crisis, he can hardly avoid some form of compromise. The question of access is a prerequisite for solving the country's larger problems, a major one being the country's mounting debt crisis.

Tentative in some neighborhoods and more demonstrative in others, three-quarters of Algeria's eligible voters cast ballots, according to the official count. And of these, 61 percent voted for Zeroual in the first contested presidential elections in the modern Middle East.

With the major opposition parties out of the running - thanks to a boycott and a ban, the array of presidential candidates to emerge from the chaos was something of "a virtual reality," in the words of one Western diplomat who works and lives behind fortified walls.

And yet the election served the purpose. With 300,000 troops deployed throughout the countryside, the level of violence declined precipitously the week before the election, and there have been no reports - official or otherwise - of bombs or assassinations in the aftermath.

What set Algeria's cycle of bloodshed was the banning of the Islamic Salvation Front from the political process in 1992; in lieu thereof, an Islamist with stakes in the government, Sheik Mahfoud Nahnah, officially won 25 percent of the vote.

The Socialist Forces Front, the most popular Berber movement, boycotted the election, and a hard-line anti-Islamist, Said Saadi, ran instead, attracting the traditional Berber 10 percent (including a large number of the country's security personnel). An Islamic intellectual, Nourredine Boukrouh, siphoned off only 3 percent of the electorate, despite a last-minute appeal to the nation's beleaguered women with the introduction of his wife, a professional woman and the Algerian version of Marilyn Quayle.

"It was as though Jesse Jackson represented the Democratic Party and Pat Buchanan ran as the Republican," according to a correspondent for an Arab-language paper who has covered Algeria's crisis for the last five years.

ZEROUAL himself apparently captured the secular support for the old National Liberation Front (FLN), the vestige of Algeria's war for independence from France. As the nation's single political party from 1962 until 1989, the FLN called the shots - in concert with Algeria's clannish military forces - until the 1992 coup.

Zeroual was serving as the nation's ambassador to Romania at the time, which makes him a rather fresh face on the Algerian scene. At the moment, his inner circle is debating what kind of Cabinet he should field, which will signal his commitment to making Algeria more politically viable. And in the last week of the presidential campaign, he promised to schedule legislative elections for next June.

In any event, he has engaged the people in a two-way process. "Le pouvoir asked us to turn out and vote today, so now we are here," a young woman in the lower middle class neighborhood of Sidi Mohammed said on election day Thursday. "And we are not going away. This is just the first step to democracy."

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