Algeria's missed opportunity

Election: Old leftist wins presidential election, but legitimacy eludes him.

April 21, 1999

ABDELAZIZ Bouteflika became foreign minister of Algeria at age 25 in 1965 and made it a home for Third World revolutionary rhetoric. Thirteen years later, he was accused of embezzlement. Instead of rising to the presidency then, he has spent most of his time since 1980 in comfortable exile. Now he is elected president with the favor of the generals he had served and then fled.

Mr. Bouteflika won 74 percent of the vote with a 60 percent turnout, if you want to believe the official tally. Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi, who had conducted the audit accusing Mr. Bouteflika two decades ago and succeeded him as foreign minister, came in a distant second with 12.5 percent.

What gave the country hope was that the outlawed Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), putative winner of the overturned 1992 election, told people to vote, and to vote for Mr. Ibrahimi.

After that, any outcome regarded as fair might have helped heal the country and win the war against terrorists.

But the generals stacked the outcome for Mr. Bouteflika, who was endorsed by four political parties. At the last minute, the other six candidates announced their withdrawal and boycott. As a result, Mr. Bouteflika becomes the first civilian president since the revolution.

Yet the legitimacy he craves is not there. Whether the withdrawals were justified is a matter of conjecture in the absence of international monitors.

No one knows better than Mr. Bouteflika his need for legitimacy, a legal opposition and the confidence of foreign investors. That would arm his government to separate terrorists from the people. His first job now is to persuade opponents to accept his legitimacy and work for another electoral test that would be above question.

Pub Date: 4/21/99

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