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Algerian election leaves uncertainties

Algeria's leaders APPEAR once more to have turned their backs on democracy, inaugurating another period of uncertainty in that country's history. When President Liamine Zeroual unexpectedly resigned, new elections were called for April 15. It was hoped the outcome would bring new leadership to bind the nation's wounds. In 1992 the military group that has ruled the country blocked the results of a parliamentary election being won by Islamic parties. Since then, the country has been the scene of a continuing tragic conflict between Muslim groups and security forces that has claimed at least 75,000 lives.

Under Algerian election procedures, selected categories of voters, including the Army and police, can vote ahead of the scheduled date. As polling patterns emerged during the early voting on April 13, six of the seven candidates for president, claiming irregularities, withdrew. Although only one candidate, former Foreign Minister Abdelaziz Bouteflika, remained, Mr. Zeroual ordered the election to go forward and Mr. Bouteflika was declared elected.

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The president-elect was clearly the candidate of the military leadership, but, in some ways, a curious choice. He comes with the credentials of a resistance fighter against French colonialism and was foreign minister under President Houari Boumedienne from 1965-1978 when Algeria played a major international role as an Arab and nonaligned country. But, after Boumedienne's death, he was progressively sidelined by the military. Although he took a seat on the central committee of the National Liberation Front in 1989, he has largely resided in France. It may be that he was chosen as a reminder of Algeria's more significant past or as a compromise among military contenders. Whatever the reason, he now faces a formidable array of problems.

Algeria has a history of violence, at least in part a legacy of the war against France that ended with independence in 1962. The new president must reach out to the nation's factions to bring an end to the cycle of killings.

But this won't be easy. The results of his election and the authenticity of his rule have been challenged. The government claims that he reaped 73 percent of the vote on a turnout of 60 percent. The opposition contends that the real turnout was only between 20 and 30 percent. A post-election statement issued by leaders of the Islamic Salvation Front, the now-banned group that led the first round of the 1991 elections, described Bouteflika's victory as "illegitimate" but called on authorities and opposition to engage in national reconciliation.

His campaign style offended many, though some appreciated his candor. One news report commented, "Algerians may also question his disdainful attitude towards them ... with remarks such as 'If the vote is not substantially in my favor, it is because the people are happy in their mediocrity.' Or in Bejaia, in the staunchly anti-establishment Kabylie region: 'I saw you as giants; now I see that you are dwarfs.' " And it is in the Berber Kabylie that he faces his strongest opposition.

The economic situation remains dismal. Rich in oil and gas, Algeria is a major supplier to Europe. But hopes for recovery face a crippling foreign debt, massive unemployment, and excessive dependence on imports. The new president can be expected to seek additional foreign investment, largely discouraged in recent years by internal violence.

US companies now have significant investment in the hydrocarbon production, but activities are difficult. An estimated 4,500 Americans work in Algeria, but in walled compounds that, according to one news report, "resemble remote desert forts."

Officially, Washington can't remain indifferent. Continuing Algerian unrest brings pressure for emigration to France and other parts of Europe. A stable Algeria can, as in the past, play a positive role in world affairs. Whether Bouteflika can restore that role depends on whether, against substantial odds, he can cool the deep passions that have torn this key North African nation apart.

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*David D. Newsom, a former US ambassador and undersecretary of state for political affairs, lives in Charlottesville, Va.

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