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Algerians Quick to Take Advantage of New Rights

ALGERIANS are already moving to implement a multi-party political system they voted for in a constitutional referendum last week. The vote Feb. 23 ended the monopoly on power held by the ruling National Liberation Front since independence from France in 1962. Until now, only FLN members could hold elected positions in the government, unions, and other associations.

With a new Constitution in hand, the National Popular Assembly, or parliament, this month will consider new laws to govern political parties, elections, and the media. Local elections later this year will put them to the test.

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At least three groups intend to form new political parties.

The tolerated but semi-clandestine communist party, known as the Socialist Vanguard Party, is generally expected to win official recognition.

The Berber Cultural Movement, meeting for the first time in Tizi Ouzou in February, announced the creation of the Association for Culture and Democracy (RCD). It will be a social democrat party, whose main purpose is to defend the Berber language, culture, and identity, as a national patrimony.

The Algerians are a Berber people, but Arabic is the official language. The RCD wants the Berber language and its dialects to be taught in school.

The extremist Islamic fundamentalists oppose a multi-party system, and had threatened to boycott the referendum. Yet a few days ago, several fundamentalist leaders decided to create the Islamic Salvation Front, with the aim of establishing an Islamic state that enforces the sharia, or Islamic law.

The government has indicated it will tolerate an Islamic party that employs dialogue, but not the violence that some fundamentalists advocate.

The authorities want to safeguard Algeria's Arab and Islamic values, but at the same time, remain open to modern ideas and progress, the government says.

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At the sixth FLN party congress last December, President Chadli Benjedid said he would guarantee the freedom of expression as well as free elections.

President Benjedid promised to carry out reforms which he said would end the notion of the state as foster parent. He said he would free individual energies for a revival of the economy - drastically affected by falling oil revenues and repayment of a foreign debt officially estimated at $19 billion. The reforms include self-management of state-owned enterprises and greater investment opportunities for the private sector.

THE vast changes in the Constitution were prompted by riots last October, in which hundreds of youths died protesting high unemployment and lack of housing. Prime Minister Kasdi Merbah has pledged to create 90,000 jobs this year. (Seventy percent of Algeria's growing population are under 30 years of age.)

But an even stronger motivation, Algerians say, may have been the frank discussions in the national media after October's bloodshed. As they debated their experience of the past 26 years, Algerians were particularly dissatisfied with the pervasive control of the FLN.

It even ``thought for us, and on our behalf,'' a university student said on national radio.

FLN party hard-liners will likely have the most difficultly accepting the new Constitution, which makes no reference to the FLN or to socialism. In the old Constitution, socialism was consecrated as an irreversible option.

A few days before the referendum, FLN communiqu'es called for a massive turnout - but were vague on which way to vote. Out of 10 million eligible voters, 6 million favored the changes, 2 million were opposed, and 2 million didn't vote.

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