Once Fishing for Democracy, Algeria Cuts Bait

Algeria's five-year experiment in giving power to the people has brought on some of the world's worst political violence. And now the North African country's military-backed president is trying to stuff the genie of democracy back into its bottle.

In a national referendum last Thursday that most observers agree was rife with fraud, the government claims Algerians approved a constitutional change that bans Islamic political parties and further consolidates the president's power.

"Rather than fostering an open political process," a European diplomat here says, "[President Liamine] Zeroual has just forged a constitutional dictatorship."

The changes aim to squash Islamic parties that have been bucking for power ever since 1991, when the government allowed multiparty elections but abruptly annulled the results before the popular Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) could claim its rightful victory. The government then outlawed the FIS.

Since then, the FIS and its splinter groups have been trying to oust the government with violence and counter-violence that has killed some 60,000 people.

But the constitutional changes could serve to stiffen the Islamists' resolve. "This will convince the guerrillas that their fight is blessed by God against an imperial power," says the diplomat.

The amendment also creates an upper house of parliament - one-third of whose members the president will appoint - that can veto any legislation generated in the lower house. President Zeroual's opponents say this gives him and his successors "the ability to essentially block any grass-roots initiative."

The full implications of the vote won't be seen until new laws are handed down before parliamentary elections, which are tentatively scheduled for next summer.

In the meantime, many political activists in Algeria's outspoken Berber community were reportedly arrested while campaigning against the referendum.

And a widespread cynicism has spread among the people. Although the government claimed a turnout of 80 percent, polling stations in the littoral cities of Algiers and Oran were sparsely attended. The official figure was an increase over last year's official figure of 71 percent, when the electorate showed up in droves to choose the incumbent, Zeroual, first appointed to the presidency by military committee in 1994.

"We think the numbers were a little bit forced," another European diplomat says of the official participation figures.

The overall international response has been equally muted as most countries give their tacit support of Zeroual's new approach. US Ambassador Ronald Neumann did make a recent trip to the complex housing the capital's embattled journalists where he championed the idea of a free press, which along with freedom of speech and association, are not mentioned in the new constitutional text. But a southern European diplomat's response is perhaps more representative:

"A controlled democracy is the best you can hope for in the Arab world," he says. "You have to put it in context.

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