Local Elections Are First Step For Democracy, but Most Algerians Want More

STANDING on the capital city's central pedestrian shopping street, Mohamed Alliche, an independent candidate in Tuesday's local elections, explains why he wants a dissolution of the national assembly and quick national elections. ``When you wash yourself, you start at the top with your head,'' he says. ``That's the way I see what this country needs.''

Most Algerians say their country needs much more reform than multiparty local elections - as novel as they will be in the 28 years of independence - if Algeria is to clean out the bureaucratic inertia and corruption that trouble it.

Several of Algeria's fledgling political parties are calling for moving up national elections now set for 1992. Among these is the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), Algeria's principal Islamic fundamentalist party, which is expected to emerge from today's vote as one of the country's two strongest political forces.

A few parties that support national elections, including the Socialist Forces Front of the charismatic former revolutionary Hocine Ait Ahmed, are boycotting the June 12 poll, charging it was prematurely called to favor the ruling National Liberation Front.

Not everyone agrees that holding national elections now is the answer for a country in which political organizations, other than the ruling FLN have only been legal for little more than a year. ``We are learning democracy as we go,'' says Tahar Bensmina, another independent candidate. ``If national elections were held now, the FLN would certainly win because, as unhappy as people are, they would fear the others' inexperience.''

The FLN enjoys tremendous advantages, including a loyal nationwide bureaucracy, a huge headquarters, and poorly disguised control of the media. If, despite all that, the party loses the local elections, demands for national elections will certainly grow.

Various political leaders and intellectuals are already calling for a transitional government, made up of nonpartisan experts, that would govern the country for a specific period, up to nine months. During that time, the FLN would be separated from state affairs. Then the assembly would be dissolved and elections held among parties starting out with equal advantages.

``The FLN is so completely discredited that it must turn over its power if the democratic process is to survive,'' says Said Saadi, leader of the Rally for Culture and Democracy, the country's principle secular party. ``Without a satisfactory solution to the people's lack of confidence, we face either the helmet [of the military] or the turban [of the Islamic fundamentalists].''

A similar idea for a nonpartisan government has been proposed by exiled former President Ahmed Ben Bella. But most observers say Mr. Ben Bella's influence is waning here in his absence. They believe results from today's elections that signal public approval of President Chadli Benjedid's reform measures would reduce his role even further.

``If there's an 80 percent turnout for these elections,'' says historian and sociologist Abdelkader Djeghloul, ``the cause of Ben Bella is finished.''

Despite knocks the FLN has taken over the soured economy and charges of corruption, the party still has the advantage of familiarity. And long time activists believe it can be reformed into the best answer for Algeria. ``I'm for the FLN, but a renovated FLN cleaned of everything backward or held over from the old system,'' says Hadg Benayad of the Algeria Press Service.

Yet even if Mr. Chadli gets a turnout that allows him to claim support for his reforms, speculation is widespread that he will still dissolve the national assembly before 1992. Whether he goes further to break his party's monopoly could depend on how much support he senses from other quarters.

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