ALGERIA may have 44 political parties and groups as it moves toward its first-ever pluralistic national elections in June, but already the elections are looking like a head-to-head battle between the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) and the fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). A year ago the FLN, which has ruled the country in a single-party system since independence in 1962, was considered discredited and unable to win a fair vote. Indeed, in its first exposure to the multiparty ballot last June, the party lost municipal elections to FIS. Fundamentalist leaders said they would make Algeria an Islamic republic - like Saudi Arabia or Pakistan - once national elections confirmed their majority.
Just six weeks before national elections on June 27, however, the FLN appears to have resurrected itself. No one is yet predicting an FLN majority for the new 542-seat national assembly. Nor is anyone wholly discounting the possibility of the FIS gaining a national majority.
``You have to remember we're a country without sophisticated public opinion polls, and with a very inexperienced and changeable electorate,'' says a high-level government official. ``No one knows what's going to happen.''
But most observers say that, while the FIS may come out on top, the likelihood of its winning a majority seems increasingly remote. More likely, observers say, is a coalition among the FLN and whichever of the ``independents'' and ``democratic'' parties will be willing to work with it.
Even FLN leaders appear to realize that this is their only hope for remaining in power after the elections, and are talking openly of a coalition government as if to prepare the public.
How the FIS would accept an election that didn't go in its favor is just one question Algerians are asking themselves. Abassi Madani, the party's leader and chief spokesman, continues to call for a general strike - possibly on election day - if objections to new election laws are not resolved.
Mr. Madani has also threatened to call for a jihad if President Chadli Benjedid does not call a snap presidential election within three months of the legislative results. Madani has spoken in fiery terms of any eventual military response to post-election instability.
The Islamists are themselves more divided than they were at the FIS's victory in local elections a year ago: in part as a result of the Gulf war and reports of FIS financial ties to Saudi Arabia, an unpopular country here; in part because Madani's mounting extremism has alienated a portion of the middle class that was sympathetic to the FIS call for a purifying change in government; in part because the FIS has had the difficult task of addressing Algeria's housing, services, and education problems in th e cities it now runs, in a forbidding national economic context.
``The FIS has played the game exactly the way the government wanted it to,'' says Ali El-Kenz, director of the Center for Applied Economics Research at the University of Algiers. ``In the cities it won, it has emphasized symbolic issues instead of questions of water and housing that people are most interested in, and now its rhetoric is of war and confrontation,'' he adds. ``That has helped reverse the FLN's fortunes and make it a refuge vote.''
The party in power also benefited, ironically, from the Gulf crisis. The war fed the nationalist sentiment that is the party's heritage and which was reinforced at the expense of the pan-Arab-Islamism that has been part of the FIS doctrine.
``I don't think I'm alone when I say the war left me more aware of my Algerian nationality and less trusting of talk about Arab-Islamic unity,'' says Ali Allalou, a well-known Algiers comedian and now legislative candidate.
The FLN is also the beneficiary of its own experience and cunning, developed over decades in power. The party recently passed an electoral law with a redistricting plan that is a case study for students of the gerrymander.
South is favored
Party leaders admit the plan favors the sparsely populated south, where FLN support is strong, over the urban strongholds of the FIS - but they say there is good reason for this.
``We feel the country's social structure had to be taken into account,'' says Abdelhamid Mehri, FLN general secretary. ``In the south there are widely dispersed tribes, and each one claimed the right to be represented.''
The FLN still elicits strong opposition from many who believe it remains a party nourished on a long dictatorship and cannot change.
``The countries of Eastern Europe have thrown off the Communist Party that stood between them and democratic freedoms and economic development,'' says Hocine Guermouche, a spokesman for former President Ahmed Ben Bella's Movement for Democracy in Algeria, and himself a legislative candidate. ``The FLN has been the equivalent here, and we too must throw it off.''
But Mr. Mehri says that analysis ignores the FLN's very deep roots in Algerian soil.
``The Communist parties of Eastern Europe were parties imposed by an invading army,'' he says, ``but the FLN remains the party of the nationalist movement of the colonial era, and the party associated with the effort to become a developed nation after independence.''
In an office large enough for half-court basketball, Mehri says he believes the FLN is ready to ``open up'' and play by the rules of a mutliparty democracy. As proof, he cites the willingness of longtime party activists to ``look outside the party structure'' for legislative candidates.
Given the FLN's negative connotations, that approach may just be good survival tactics.
As one woman student at the University of Algiers says, ``I don't want the FIS, or the FLN, or any party at this point. I'm just going to look at the individual candidates in my district and choose the best one.''