Algeria's leader seeks mandate for his brand of political reform

Algerians today vote in a referendum designed to open up the country's political system. The proposal - which will reduce the role of the ruling socialist party in the day-to-day running of the country - is President Chadli Benjedid's attempt to appease his countrymen's demands for a more democratic government.

Mr. Chadli hopes to use a large showing at the polls as a mandate to confront hard-liners within the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) who oppose his proposed political reforms.

Most members of the FLN, which has ruled the country since independence in 1962, have resisted Chadli's reforms - which would effectively transfer power from the party elite to the people, in the form of more democratic rights.

Diplomats say party members are loathe to give up the privileges - including special shops, hard currency allocations, better housing, and expensive cars - that almost three decades of rule have brought them.

But rising public dissatisfaction - evident in riots which rocked Algiers, the capital, and other cities last month - means Chadli will have little choice but to proceed with his reform plan at the FLN congress in December.

Chadli, who has held power in Algeria for 10 years, must run for a new presidential term in January.

Most diplomats - including representatives of several nonaligned countries - consider Chadli to be sincere in his desire for reform, and say he has already sought to placate discontent among Algerians by other means.

Last Saturday, he ousted Mohammad Sherif Massaadia as Deputy Head of the FLN. Mr. Massaadia was widely considered to be an opponent to the reforms advocated by the President's own minority ``modernist'' group within the party.

Chadli also removed Gen. Medjdoub Lkhal Ayat as head of the military security organization, which has been responsible for much of Algeria's political repression since independence.

The President further announced the provisional release of all remaining detainees held since last month's riots and the appointment of a special committee to study indemnity requests by families who lost relatives.

Officially, some 150 people died in the disturbances, but Western diplomats and independent Algerian human rights sources say that 500 or more may have been killed.

Nevertheless, Chadli's efforts at reform may prove to be too slow, too late, or insufficient for many Algerians. For the moment, the President has dismissed the possibility of a pluralist democratic state.

His intention, analysts say, is to broaden the FLN, which used to be a political front incorporating different parties and movements before becoming a socialist one-party organ along East-bloc lines.

``This could mean offering different candidates at party elections or allowing independents to stand on their own,'' said one Western diplomat. Chadli has said that he could envisage different political ``tendencies'' emerging within one front as long as they do not endanger the state.

Algeria has already undergone dramatic changes with increasingly open debate since the riots, which are described by some Algerians as the ``second revolution'' or even the start of their ``Prague spring.''

Professional groups such as lawyers, doctors, and journalists have begun strengthening or establishing themselves in independent associations free of party interference. Even the government news media has been publishing comments that would have been inconceivable three weeks ago.

``It is not just a matter of a referendum,'' says a French-trained doctor. ``It is a matter of democracy ... of public debate. The people have been suffocated. The party has held a monopoly of power for too long. By going into the streets they have shown what they do not want. Now we the people have to organize to show what we want.''

Some diplomats note that by seeking political reform, Chadli will be stepping on the toes of the party.

``The problem is that Chadli may have to make compromises with the party which, in the end, will please no one,'' says a Western economic analyst. ``And without political reform you cannot introduce the economic overhaul this country needs.''

Considerable skepticism exists about Chadli's ability to push through reforms. But as several Algerians have stressed, it is better to vote in the referendum even if only with blank ballots, in order to get the democratic process moving.

``In the end, we may see a lot of reforms but with the same old faces,'' comments an Algerian lawyer who requested anonymity. ``But the government has got to understand that these young people did not die to keep a lot of old faces in power. We're going to need real change.''

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