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Algeria's Islamic Front Is Poised to Win Clear Majority

A STUNNING victory by Algeria's Islamic fundamentalists in the first round of national elections puts the country on the threshold of a parliamentary majority determined to install a strict Islamic government.The primary fundamentalist party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), won 184 of 430 seats in parliament, and appears certain to end up with more than enough seats to guarantee an absolute majority after runoff elections set for Jan. 16. The FIS is in a favorable runoff position in 145 districts. It is well placed to force early presidential elections, a demand it has kept up since the party won local elections in 1990. Government officials from the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) and other politicians called on Algerians over the weekend to mobilize against a fundamentalist majority in the elections' runoff round. But most independent observers said an Islamic victory was a foregone conclusion. "People are shocked and in a state of depression because they see we are headed toward a parliament where the FIS will have an absolute majority," says Omar Belhouchet, director of El Watan, an independent Algiers daily. "I don't see much chance of avoiding it." Most political analysts attribute the FIS popularity not so much to a strong public desire for an Islamic republic, but to a nearly unanimous rejection of the FLN, which has run the country since independence in 1962. The magnitude of the FIS victory, and the repercussions it is sure to have for Algeria's neighbors, covered over the accomplishment the elections represent not just for Algeria but for the Arab world. The elections took place without violence and with few accusations of fraud or other abnormalities. "These are not the first multiparty elections to take place in an Arab country, but they are the first to take place that threaten to turn out the government in power," says Jean Leca, a North African specialist at the Political Studies Institute in Paris. The elections also saw the rise of the Socialist Forces Front (FFS) party of Hocine Ait-Ahmed, a longtime activist for democratic freedoms and economic reform. The FFS took 25 seats, compared to 16 for the ruling FLN. Three independent parties also won seats, but most of the more than 50 political parties were eliminated. Yet the first round results sent chills through neighboring Morocco and Tunisia, both of which have addressed Islamic political activism with repression. Confirmation of the FIS victory in January will lead many middle-class, Westernized Algerians to consider leaving the country, some observers in Algeria and in Europe predict. The argument that Algerians are expressing a protest against the FLN and the devastating economic conditions that developed during its regime was also made when the FIS won a majority of municipalities in local elections in 1990. The FIS victory supports those who argue that a large segment of the population is indeed supportive at least of what it perceives to be the fundamentalists' goals.

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