Better title for this would be... Algeria Slowly Being Destroyed
Algeria Moving Slowly Toward Democracy
By JAMEY KEATEN, Associated Press Writer
ALGIERS, Algeria - Algeria has come a long way from years of relentless massacres by Islamic insurgents and a military lock on power, but some analysts say true democracy remains a dream for the new U.S. ally despite President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's landslide re-election.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's landslide re-election.
With many Algerians feeling disenfranchised, few political observers expect much change in this north African country, a top provider of natural gas to the northeastern United States. They say real power rests with a tiny cadre of military and political elites.
Thursday's contest was billed as a crucial test of democracy, and foreign observers-though few-praised one of the cleanest elections ever in the Arab world. In a first, the army declared neutrality in the election, appearing to leave the politics to politicians.
With a staggering 83 percent of the vote, Bouteflika-a moderate and U.S. ally in the war on terror-crushed five rivals, including a former prime minister and an Islamic candidate.
President Bush joined France, Morocco, South Africa and other countries in congratulating Bouteflika. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the elections "represent another step on the road toward democracy" in Algeria, and said the two countries would cooperate more to combat terrorism.
But foes cried fraud, alleging Bouteflika's cronies rigged the vote and prevented some voters from casting ballots. Former Prime Minister Ali Benflis, an estranged one-time ally of the president who won just 8 percent of the vote, called it a "parody of an election."
The result, said fellow presidential hopeful Said Sadi, a free-market advocate from the restive Kabylie region, "is a bad sign. It is a precursor of a new absolutism that will reign in the country."
"You can't really consider this a step forward for Algerian democracy," said Fahmy Howeidi, a columnist for al-Ahram newspaper in Cairo, Egypt. "You hear much talk about democracy, but we haven't seen it yet. It remains a dream for many Algerians."
Bouteflika is the first president re-elected under a multiparty system that began in 1989.
In 1992, the army canceled legislative elections that a now-outlawed Islamic party was expected to win. That sparked an Islamic insurgency, whose resulting violence targeting civilians claimed some 120,000 lives.
One chance at a multiparty election evaporated on the eve of the 1999 presidential contest, when six opponents of Bouteflika quit the race amid claims of pending fraud.
Some said it's tough to expect full democracy just yet.
"You have to remember: We're talking about a country that just came out of hell," said Abdel Monem Said, director of the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.
Despite a bureaucratic thicket of rules that have deterred foreign investment, high oil prices over the past three years have helped improve Algeria's economic fortunes. The country's economy grew 6.8 percent in 2003.
With unemployment over 25 percent, few Algerians benefit from the oil wealth-the source of nearly all of Algeria's income from abroad. Many Algerians live in cramped homes because of a housing shortage.
While radical Islamic violence has slowed, the government has not lifted a state of emergency. Police still peer into passing vehicles at highway checkpoints around the capital.
Bouteflika, 67, is one of the most enduring faces on the Algerian political scene. He was foreign minister until the mid-1970s, then was driven into the political wilderness before returning to win the presidency in 1999.
Support for Bouteflika is grounded more in his perceived achievements-primarily a fading insurgency and a return of the long-isolated nation to the international community-than in hope for change.
He scored political points in his first term by extending an olive branch to Islamic insurgents, with an amnesty to all militants who did not use violence. Some 6,000 accepted.
Critics say Bouteflika has shown authoritarian strains, by battling the print media and usurping the courts. The diminutive leader once reportedly referred himself as "two centimeters taller than Napoleon."
They also claim Bouteflika is likely to read his re-election as a mandate to consolidate his power-such as by diluting the authority of an already weak parliament and reshaping the constitution.
Bouteflika says he heard a different message from voters.
Speaking Friday on prime-time television, Bouteflika said the "exclusive goal" in his new five-year term would be to address the concerns of Algerians, though he was not specific.
"I have heard your grievances, I've taken note of your difficulties," he said.
Associated Press writer Hassane Meftahi in Algiers contributed to this report.