ALGIERS, Algeria -- A party that says it wants to turn Algeria into an Islamic republic in the Iranian mold has triumphed in the nation's first free parliamentary elections, trouncing the ruling National Liberation Front, which has governed the country since independence 30 years ago.
Government officials said that virtually complete returns from Thursday's voting had delivered 189 of the Algerian Parliament's 430 seats to the Islamic Salvation Front, a militant Muslim fundamentalist movement.
The National Liberation Front, heroes of the fight for independence from France, won 16 seats, coming in third after the Front for Socialist Forces, a secularist party with a base in the Berber minority, which won 20 seats.
The seats decided Thursday were those in which one candidate received a majority of the vote. For contests in which no candidate achieved a majority, runoff elections are scheduled for Jan. 15.
But the scope of the victory by the Islamic Salvation Front left little doubt that with more than 200 seats still to be decided in the runoff elections, it will win the 27 additional seats it needs to secure a parliamentary majority.
"Unbelievable, but true," said a senior government official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It is a catastrophe. May God preserve the country."
Other officials said the rout suffered by the National Liberation Front went beyond their worst expectations. Officials spoke of "disarray" in the government as it plans its next move.
The acting president of the Islamic Salvation Front, Abdelqader Hachani, said at a news conference last night that the movement's next priority would be to call for new presidential elections in the hope of unseating President Chadli Benjedid, whose term runs until January 1994.
The fundamentalist party's two top leaders, Abassi Madani and Ali Belhadj, have been jailed by the government since June on charges of plotting to take power by force, but many Algerians expect them to be released soon in light of the demonstrated power and popularity of their movement.
The results of the Algerian elections, widely thought to be the Arab world's first fully free parliamentary vote, are certain to cause concern in neighboring Tunisia and Morocco, where fundamentalists are severely repressed but are believed to have a significant following among the poor, just as they do in Algeria.
The results in Algeria are also bound to be viewed with dismay by the governments of Egypt and Jordan, where moves toward democratization over the last few years have sprouted powerful Islamic political movements.
France, Spain and Italy are also concerned. About 4 million Algerian expatriates live in those three countries, and officials fear that the installation of an Islamic fundamentalist government in Algeria could send millions more fleeing, stoking the popularity of xenophobic right-wing parties in Europe.
During prayers yesterday at Ibn Badiss, a Muslim fundamentalist mosque in the Al-Quba neighborhood of Algiers, about 30,000 supporters of the Islamic Salvation Front chanted as one of their leaders, Sheik Abu Kheiridin Homi, told them of plans to try enemies of the Islamic movement and those who stole money and ordered Muslims killed, an apparent allusion to officials who ordered the suppression of anti-government demonstrations in 1988. Hundreds of people were killed in the violence.
Sheik Homi also said it was time for Algerian women to conform to the Islamic dress code, wear the veil and stop "looking like cheap merchandise that can be bought and sold."
Farida Lesbeth, an Algiers woman who works for a foreign company, said, "I am afraid we are entering a dark age. This is an absolutely terrifying thing, more so since it has resulted from our own voting."
Some senior officials of the National Liberation Front spoke last night of the possibility of a coup by the Algerian army. But foreign diplomats here who know some of the senior army generals say the army is not likely to accept any mission that involves killing Algerians.
"I think the power elite is making a serious error if it is counting on the army to bail them out this time," said an Arab diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Algeria's Muslims are members of the mainstream Sunni branch of the faith, in which the tradition of martyrdom and militancy is not as strong as it is in the Shiite branch, which is dominant in Iran. But the success of the Islamic Salvation Front indicates that sectarian differences are no barrier to the spread of Muslim fundamentalist politics if stresses in the society are great enough.
Because of the steep decline in global oil prices that started in the early 1980s, Algeria, a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, piled up debts that have reached $26 billion. More than 30 percent of the labor force is idle.
Severe shortages of housing, schooling and medical care feed the desperation evident among a whole new generation in this country of 26 million, which has one of the world's highest birthrates.
Millions of youths, in a country where 70 percent of the population is under the age of 25, flocked to the Islamic movement, largely out of a feeling that no one else had a better solution.
"There is nothing surprising about what is happening here. We should have known it was coming," said Zwawi Ben Hamadi, editor of the independent newspaper Algerie Actualite.
"We are at the point where out of the entire population of this country, there are barely 1 million persons who are participating in a civilized cycle of life, in the sense that they have good jobs, collect a reasonable salary, deal with banks and sometimes can take vacations. The rest of the country lives at subsistence levels or below that. Yesterday, they got the right to express themselves."