Algerian voters re-elect president in 83% landslide

Loser alleges fraud, but observers say any tampering was negligible

April 10, 2004|By Evan Osnos | Evan Osnos,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

ALGIERS, Algeria - Algerians largely ignored allegations of vote tampering yesterday and heralded the landslide re-election of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika as their first genuinely free and competitive election since gaining independence in 1962.

Thursday's vote had been widely watched in the Middle East as a test of whether Africa's second-largest country could rediscover a path of democratization after a civil war that claimed an estimated 120,000 lives.

When they awoke yesterday, many Algerians were surprised to discover that the powerful military establishment had held to its pledge of neutrality, breaking a long tradition of anointing the president.

Bouteflika, a 67-year-old political veteran who had campaigned on his role in quelling a bloody 12-year Islamist insurgency, trounced his five opponents by drawing 83 percent of the vote, according to the Interior Ministry.

Former Prime Minister Ali Benflis, who was a distant second with 8 percent, denounced the election as a "sham," tainted by irregularities "in thousands of polling stations across the country." The Benflis campaign did not provide proof of the abuses but vowed to appeal to the Constitutional Council, which must validate the results.

International observers largely discounted the fraud allegations, saying that, short of a massive conspiracy, the margin of victory among the 10 million votes cast suggested tampering was inconsequential.

"Of course, there probably was fraud on some level, but I think the Algerians can say confidently that if you look at the standard of elections in Africa and the Arab world, they are among the best," said Bruce George, a Welsh observer with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

"I'm not saying it was a perfect Swedish election, but on balance it was pretty good."

The overwhelming victory also drew the approval of the United States, which has cultivated ties with Bouteflika and the Algerian military as an ally in the war on terror.

"I think the Algerian people should be congratulated on having conducted this election in a peaceful and relatively transparent way," State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said in Washington. He added, however, that any allegations should be thoroughly investigated.

Other candidates drew little support: Islamist Abdallah Djeballah won slightly less than 5 percent of the vote. The remaining challengers, who each garnered less than 2 percent, included liberal Said Sadi from the Berber-minority region and Louisa Hannoun, a Trotskyite who was the first prominent female presidential contender in the Arab world.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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