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Algerian Elections Canceled

By Jonathan Randal
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 13, 1992; Page A01

ALGIERS, JAN. 12 -- Algeria's military-controlled government officially canceled the country's first multi-party parliamentary elections today, thus blunting a fledgling democratic experiment here and quashing fundamentalist Muslim hopes of transforming Algeria into a model Islamic state.

The announcement came just one day after the abrupt resignation of President Chadli Bendjedid and the formation of a ruling State Security Council composed of seven key officials in Algeria's secular government -- including the defense minister and the military chief of staff.

The council justified its decision to cancel the elections -- whose second round was scheduled for Thursday -- by declaring that it was impossible for the electoral process to continue "until necessary conditions were achieved for the normal functioning of institutions." It declined to specify what it meant by "necessary conditions" but added that it was "temporarily taking over all matters that could threaten public order and state security."

Early reports indicated the council also had announced that a new popular election to replace Bendjedid -- required by the constitution within 45 days of his resignation -- would be deferred until June, but this was unclear late tonight.

A coalition of Muslim fundamentalist candidates had scored an overwhelming victory in initial legislative balloting Dec. 26, and it appeared that runoff voting set for this Thursday could give them a two-thirds majority in parliament, enabling them to overturn presidential vetoes and alter the country's secular constitution.

That possibility aroused deep-seated fears among large segments of Algerian society that wish to retain secular rule, and it also prompted widespread concern in other secular Arab states in which fundamentalist sentiment has been sharply on the rise.

The Islamic Salvation Front -- a coalition of fundamentalist groups and candidates -- reacted to the events of the past two days with outrage, calling it a "scandalous scenario that drowns the people's choice." The Front demanded "continuation of the electoral process {as} the only guarantee of stability and the everlastingness of the people and the country," while interim Front leader Abdelkader Hachani called on Algerians to be "ready to abort any conspiracy aiming to liquidate their project for society" -- an apparent reference to Front hopes of creating an Islamic state.

Cancellation of the elections also brought complaints from more moderate politicians, including Hocine Ait Ahmed, leader of the centrist Socialist Forces Front. Ahmed told a French radio interviewer that Algeria was witnessing a coup "if not in form, then certainly in fact. . . . They won't make anyone believe that stopping an electoral process is a democratic advance."

Still, Algiers and other large cities here appeared calm today, and armor-backed army units stationed around government buildings following Bendjedid's resignation Saturday night were withdrwan and replaced by squads of lightly armed troops. Algiers had been the scene of a number of bloody political demonstrations and riots in recent months, and the government evidently feared an angry reaction to the latest developments.

But diplomatic observers here said the fundamentalist leadership apparently had failed to recognize the implications of a recently enacted law that authorizes the head of government -- Premier Sid Ahmed Ghozali, a member of the State Security Council -- to issue orders to the army, a power previously reserved for the president. Buoyed by such precautions, Defense Ministry officials reportedly telephoned key Western embassies an hour before Bendjedid's resignation was officially announced to stress that the constitution was being respected.

Bendjedid's National Liberation Front -- which had ruled Algeria since the country won independence from France in 1962 -- won just a scattering of seats in the Dec. 26 elections, but the president had been reported by government sources as preferring to use his wide constitutional powers to check rather than suppress a fundamentalist majority. The sources said today, however, that key army commanders fearful of fundamentalist threats to deemphasize the military eventually persuaded the president of the political advantages of resigning.

Since its controversial authorization as a legal party in 1989, the Islamic Salvation Front has displayed a determined gift for political organization seemingly lacking among its secular, democratic rivals -- or even Bendjedid's discredited ruling party. And even Algerians claiming anti-fundamentalist sympathies cautioned that the military alone cannot implement secular democracy among a population that in the main has shown itself unwilling to match the fundamentalists' efficient grass-roots organization.

Moreover, diplomats say there is little the new military-run regime can do to improve depressed living standards here or restructure an economy saddled with foreign debt repayments and low market prices for oil and natural-gas exports -- which account for virtually all of Algeria's foreign exchange earnings.

As for the Islamic Front, analysts said its muted initial response to the government's move may indicate disagreement over what course to follow. With the Front's shadowy leadership panel reportedly still in session late tonight, diplomats and political analysts predicted that nullification of the election would fuel already existing dissension in their ranks but probably not spark a campaign of violence.

Radical fundamentalists favoring the violent seizure of power already have criticized moderates within the Front who insisted on taking part in the elections, arguing that the army and secular authorities would never allow the Front to exercise power, no matter how impressive its election showing. But moderates are expected to argue that any violence now risks an immediate army crackdown and that the Islamic Front would require weeks if not months to develop an efficient clandestine organization capable of surviving a showdown.

"If the fundamentalists cause any trouble," said an Algerian close to the government, "a decree dissolving {the Front} will be published within hours."

The Islamic Salvation Front's program calls, among other things, for a ban on alcohol, separation of the sexes at school and "protecting the family," a position widely interpreted as denying jobs to women. The fundamentalists draw their support largely from the young, poor and jobless; about three-quarters of Algeria's 25.7 million people are under 30, and unemployment is now running at about 23 percent.

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