THIS week's victory of Islamic fundamentalists in Algeria's first free elections in 28 years has shaken the single-party government of President Chadli Benjedid. Tuesday's election results, which institutionalize the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) as a powerful force in Algeria, boost fundamentalist calls for dissolution of the national assembly and for snap national elections.
The local elections are a repudiation of the National Liberation Front (FLN), which has ruled Algeria since its independence from France in 1962. Yet a high abstention rate - about 40 percent - indicates that nearly half of Algerians accept neither the FLN nor the FIS as the country's leadership.
The results rattle neighboring Tunisia and Morocco, whose governments have banned Islamic parties, and complicate Algeria's economic recovery program, because the government lacks a mandate for implementing tough decisions.
``What these elections do say is that Algerians do not think the country has experienced the changes it should have after 1988,'' when violent rioting rocked the socialist, single-party system embodied by the FLN, says Ali El-Kenz, research director at the Center for Economic Research on Development in Algiers. ``But with a victorious FIS calling for dissolution of the assembly, and other parties insisting on the same thing, national elections are now in the foreseeable future.''
The FIS won control of city councils in all of Algeria's largest cities, plus the administrations of most wilayats or counties. The fundamentalists took about 53 percent of the vote, followed by 34 percent for the FLN, and 8 percent for the Rally for Culture and Democracy, which supports a secular system of government.
Officials of all parties, however, complained of widespread irregularities, including multiple voting, missing ballots, and interference at polling places. Speaking beneath a banner proclaiming, ``Islam: the only solution,'' FIS leader Abassi Madani said, ``We cannot change the foundation without changing the summit,'' and called for national elections within three months. However Dr. Madani said the FIS ``is in no hurry'' to see President Chadli's departure.
The robed, bearded Islamic leader added, however, that if the government does not call legislative elections, the FIS would push for a referendum on the question.
Madani is carefully projecting a moderate image of Islam. He says the elections were not a vote for an Islamic republic, but for a system that allows the promoters of that option to pursue their goal.
Not all Algerians are convinced by Madani's soft tones. ``Three months ago the FIS opposed the multiparty system, calling it Western blasphemy,'' says Abdelkader Djeghloul, a professor of history and sociology. ``Now that that very system has put the wind in their sails they are willing to wait,'' he adds, ``but their goal is to replace the FLN in a single-party system.''
Still to be reckoned with are the strong minority of abstentionists, many of whom backed calls from such opposition leaders as revolutionary Hocine Ait Ahmed and exiled former president Ahmed Ben Bella for a boycott. Those leaders' gamble was only half won, however: They succeeded in denying the FLN the approval high participation would have signaled, but they also handed the keys of local administrations to the FIS.
The country's ``democratic forces'' are now expected to try to forge some sort of ``democratic front'' in anticipation of national elections.