Multiparty Algerian Vote Turns on Economy, Islam
ALGERIA'S first national multiparty elections Thursday will be watched closely as an indicator of prospects for democracy across North Africa and the Arab world.Yet an event that finds itself bathed in a spotlight of hope for a region still dominated by autocratic leaders and single-party regimes is being greeted with a lack of enthusiasm and even anguish by Algeria's 18 million people. These elections will allow, for the first time since the country's independence in 1962, a full spectrum of political groups - including the Islamic movement - to vie for seats in what remains a single-party parliament. But the vote's significance risks being lost in a generalized gloom over economic conditions. With unemployment topping 20 percent, housing almost impossible to find for a burgeoning urban population, prices rising fast, and many products hard to find, many Algerians hold out scant hope for the foreseeable future. As a result, observers expect a disappointingly high rate of voter abstention. "The stakes of these elections for Algeria, the Maghreb [North Africa], and even the Arab world are extremely high," says Ali El-Kenz, a social economist and director of the Center for Applied Economics Studies in Algiers. "Repercussions from the experience will play a role in determining whether democratization advances or retreats across the region." The Islamic parties' performance will be most closely watched in this vein. "There is a feeling of exhilaration and joy among people striving for democracy's advancement in the region that Algeria is holding these elections," says Moncef Ben M'Rad, editor-in-chief of Realites, a Tunisian political weekly. "There is equally an underlying apprehension, however, that if this leads to a [Islamic] fundamentalist victory, there will be less democracy and more instability in all our countries."