Turkey, Algeria juggle elections

Six of seven candidates withdrew from Algeria's presidential race.

Military rule and democracy are rare bedfellows, but in Algeria and Turkey variations of this tricky formula are on display during elections in both countries this week.

Geographically, the cases couldn't be more different: Algeria is the juggernaut of north Africa and includes a big chunk of the Sahara; Turkey is the large eastern anchor of Europe and a NATO ally.

But both countries are ruled by "democratic" regimes that are ultimately answerable to powerful and often shadowy military forces. At the climax of a dramatic election campaign that promised a real taste of democracy for the first time in seven years - but was marred by an 11th-hour pullout of opposition candidates - Algerians voted for a new president yesterday. In Turkey, polls will take place on Sunday.

Both votes raise questions about how regimes can juggle the demands of democracy, along with bottom-line military agendas that have little to do with the people's will.

In Algeria, the military has been fighting Islamist guerrillas since it canceled 1992 elections that Islamist candidates were almost sure to win. Some 70,000 people have died in the subsequent conflict, though in the past year security has improved.

And in Turkey, the Army sees itself as embattled on two fronts: against Islamists whose growing popularity in 1995 brought them more seats in parliament than any other party - a surprise in a country where the Army confers upon itself the role of preserving Turkey's secularism - and against ethnic Kurdish separatists in the southeast.

A turning point in Algeria?

In Algeria, the run-up to the election was boosted by the decision of President Liamine Zeroual, a former general, to step down 18 months early. People spoke of a loosening of the grip of the pouvoir, the powerful military establishment, and a heady sense that seven years of conflict might come to a close.

"We were afraid that after all this violence and confrontation, people might not mobilize, but they did so at the highest level," says Salima Ghezali, editor of Algiers's banned La Nation newspaper. "For the first time, there is a real and public challenge to leave the status quo."

In March 1992, the popular Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was banned and thousands of its members detained in camps. Extremists have taken their fight underground, forming new groups that have carried out widespread massacres. The Army responded with human rights abuses of its own.

But in an indication of how the atmosphere has improved, FIS activists called on Algerians to vote en masse, after three previous election boycotts.

Yet the decision by the six anti-establishment candidates to withdraw Wednesday, alleging fraud, threatened to overshadow those changes. Front-runner Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a former foreign minister who is the choice of the military and some main and moderate Islamist parties, told the Associated Press that he would assume the presidency only if there was "massive participation of the people" and if he won a large majority. Otherwise, "I'll go home."

The last-minute crisis may have stemmed from divisions within ruling circles. Mr. Zeroual has been eager to put a democratic stamp on his legacy. But despite his promise to make the election fair - a Western diplomat said "no stone was left unturned" in the effort - some argue that Zeroual was outmaneuvered by "some of the generals."

"I think [Zeroual] ... was not the master of the whole thing," says Ghania Khelifi, an analyst with the Algiers newspaper Liberte. "I think he's a victim of the establishment."

The opposition pullout, however, may enhance Algeria's political openness. "I think it's a good step for democracy," says Ms. Khelifi. "They know there is an opposition that can say 'no.' "

Opposing Turkey's Islamic party

In Turkey, the hard-line stance toward popular Islamists by the secular military has prompted warnings that the country risked an Algeria-type problem. The Welfare Party was shut down in February 1998 in a legal case encouraged by Army chiefs. Proceedings are under way to ban its more moderate replacement, called Virtue, though the party may do well in Sunday's vote.

Some analysts suggest that younger leadership in the military may be more accommodating. "They want to see how democracy can solve the problems," says Hasan Koni, an international relations professor at Ankara University. "You can't [shut down the Islamist party] every year, again and again."

Virtue Party adviser Murat Mercan says his "gut feeling" is that the "military is not as biased in opposing Islam as before and is becoming more moderate."

Others are not convinced. "The only evolution I can see in the military is that they are keeping quiet," says Alparslan Esmer, defense correspondent for the Turkish Daily News in Ankara. "They do not want Islamists to gain power."

The other front line is the Kurdish issue, which burst into prominence in February when Abdullah Ocalan, guerrilla leader of the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party, was captured in Kenya.

This was a boon to tough-talking Premier Bulent Ecevit, a leftist whose hawkish foreign policy and nationalism have won newfound support. Turkey has seen a series of shaky coalition governments come and go in recent months, and the vote may not change that.

In the early 1990s, the Army destroyed 3,000 Kurdish villages but later began a hearts-and-minds campaign. The legal Kurdish party, the People's Democracy Party (HADEP), is expected to do well in the local elections.

But earlier this week, Turkish officials in the eastern capital Diyarbakir canceled a HADEP rally. Police broke up the assembled crowd and detained 300. "The military has not seized on [the Ocalan capture] to make a new start, and they could have," says a Western diplomat. "When HADEP wins the local councils down there," he says, "it could get much worse."

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