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."