Algeria's pro-government party leads in parliamentary elections Islamist groups take quarter of seats, giving hope to political pluralism


ALGIERS, Algeria -- Pro-government forces took the largest share of Algeria's first multiparty Parliament yesterday amid charges of fraud and irregularity. But two Islamist parties also gained one-fourth of the seats, giving a society wracked by violence a new breath of political pluralism.

"This is a big democratic day a great day," declared one ebullient leader of the moderate Islamists, Mahfoud Nahnad, even as he launched into a tirade about all the votes allegedly stolen from his party.

All in all, the delayed replay of Algeria's catastrophic 1992 election was a mixed bag, political analysts and election observers said.

The 65 percent turnout was unimpressive by Algerian standards. Favoritism toward the pro-government camp almost certainly occurred, and Parliament itself will enjoy only limited powers with the army and President Liamine Zeroual still firmly in control.

Yet the results gave Islamists and other government critics a voice in governing.

The achievement could blunt the appeal of violent groups who have waged a five-year war of terror against Algerian authorities since Islamists were stopped from taking power when the army canceled the country's first democratic election in 1992.

The distribution of seats was realistic enough to be accepted by a war-weary public, even if "you have to hold your nose a bit," predicted one international monitor with long experience in the country.

The voting was carried out in a war atmosphere. The overriding question was whether, in the long run, it would serve the interests of peace.

Zeroual's government lost no time claiming it would. "This historic vote, which was not marred by any distortion, is an enormous progress and a great victory," an enthusiastic Interior Minister Mustapha Benmansour told journalists.

Zeroual's 2-month-old National Democratic Rally got 155 seats, or 41 percent, of the 380 places. Known by its French acronym RND, the party was backed by the country's sizable administrative bureaucracy and military and picked up votes from Algerians supportive of Zeroual's policy of eradicating "terrorism" while cautiously introducing market reforms.

Opposition parties said vote manipulation was a major factor in its success, and some foreign election observers were inclined to agree. Although the monitors in the country have not issued their final reports, they said privately that there were at least strong grounds to suspect the size of the RND's victory margin.

One observer said he saw ballot boxes from army posts where turnout was reported at 100 percent, and all the votes were for the RND. In addition, he said, the ballots had been folded uniformly and stacked perfectly inside the box.

In second place was Nahnad's Movement for a Peaceful Society, a moderate Islamic party formerly known as Hamas. It won 69 seats, or 18 percent of the total. Along with another relatively moderate, Islamic-oriented party, Nanda, which had 34 seats, the Islamists will control 103 seats, or 27 percent, of the Parliament.

The moderate Islamists charged that the final tally was rigged against them but indicated that they will take their seats in Parliament anyway.

Charges of irregularities centered on two categories: "special voting" -- the voting of soldiers, police, firefighters and other state workers who voted separately because of public duties -- and "itinerant voting," in which ballot boxes were moved to sparsely settled areas.

Opposition parties said in both cases that they could not properly monitor the ballot boxes.

What was unclear was whether the level of vote fraud was so egregious that it would lead to a popular outburst or renewed support for armed groups who have been opposed to the government since 1992.

Pub Date: 6/07/97

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