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Opportunity in Algeria

December 4, 1995



ALGERIANS have made their political preferences clear. Overwhelmingly, they have voted against continued violence and destruction.

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The north African country's recent presidential election, its first multiparty contest for the top job, gave a solid victory to Liamine Zeroual. Mr. Zeroual, a former general, has led Algeria since January 1994, when he was appointed president by the Army. A military figure retaining his post may hardly seem a step toward democracy and long-term stability, but consider the broader context:

*Turnout for the Nov. 16 presidential vote was nearly 75 percent of those eligible. That despite threats from Islamic militants to "turn ballot boxes into coffins." After four years of bloody conflict, average Algerians weren't going to be denied a chance to make their voices heard.

*While the ex-general got 61 percent of the tally, moderate Islamists drew a significant 25 percent. More hard-line Islamic groups, including the once ascendant Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), did not participate. Some FIS leaders have indicated a willingness to talk with Zeroual, and the president has voiced a commitment to pluralistic government.

*Four years ago, Algeria's voters threw massive support behind the FIS in a first round of parliamentary elections. That spooked the military, which nullified the voting. Looking back, it's more likely people were voting against the long-ruling, highly corrupt National Liberation Front, rather than for theocratic government - just as now the vote may be more against continued turmoil than for Zeroual, with his strong ties to the Army.

The stage may thus be set for a much-needed political opening in Algeria. Moderate Islamic politicians have a chance to participate in government. Extremists who brook no opposition, notably the vicious Armed Islamic Group and Army hard-liners, are at odds both with a government that favors dialogue and with the expressed wishes of the people.

Algeria won't emerge easily from four years of civil war, which have claimed some 50,000 lives. But a path of emergence could be opening. Europe has felt a terrorist spillover as well as a flood of economic migrants from North Africa. Both it and the US should encourage moderating forces in Algeria, perhaps tying economic aid to steps toward greater democracy.