Algeria’s main pro-government party won the largest share of votes in the country’s first local elections since 1990, according to results announced Friday.
Opposition party leaders, however, promptly questioned the fairness of Thursday’s voting and accused the government of using intimidation and fraud to ensure victory by the pro-government National Democratic Rally led by President Liamine Zeroual. The dispute seemed to undermine government hopes that the contest would burnish its legitimacy at the expense of Islamic militants fighting to overthrow the military-backed secular regime.
The National Democratic Rally and its two partners in Zeroual’s ruling coalition - the National Liberation Front and the Movement for a Peaceful Society, a moderate Islamic party - won 84 percent of municipal races and 70 percent of regional races, according to results announced in Algiers by Interior Minister Mustapha Benmansour and reported by the Associated Press.
The National Democratic Rally, which was created by Zeroual earlier this year, won 7,242 municipal council seats, or more than half of those contested. The government claimed a nationwide turnout of 67 percent, but some Algerian analysts questioned that figure. They cited media reports of nearly deserted polling stations in the capital, where turnout was officially reported at 45.6 percent.
Algeria’s government has touted the local elections as the final step in restoring the country to democratic rule. Beginning in 1989, Algeria flirted briefly with democracy. But the experiment ended early in 1992, when the army canceled parliamentary elections rather than permit a victory by the fundamentalist-leaning Islamic Salvation Front.
The government then banned the party, touching off five years of violence between Islamic militants and government security forces that has killed tens of thousands of Algerians, most recently in civilian massacres on the outskirts of the capital. The military wing of the Front declared a unilateral cease-fire last month, and most of the massacres have been blamed on a breakaway faction, the Armed Islamic Group.
In the view of Western diplomats in Algiers, the government has been partially successful in its efforts to legitimize its rule. Zeroual won a relatively persuasive victory in presidential elections in 1995. The country’s political life has been enlivened by opposition parties that won seats in June’s parliamentary elections.
But Zeroual also has pushed through a highly restrictive constitution that bans parties based on religion and invests his office with extraordinary power. The June elections were tainted by widespread allegations of fraud. And the government has consistently ruled out any political role for leaders of the banned Islamic party, notwithstanding last month’s cease-fire.
Opposition parties had accused the government of stacking the deck in Thursday’s elections in favor of pro-government parties by disqualifying large numbers of opposition candidates, often for flimsy bureaucratic reasons. The winners will fill municipal and regional councils whose members until now have been appointed by the government.
Three opposition parties - the Movement for Social Peace, the Front for Socialist Forces and the Rally for Culture and Democracy - said they plan legal challenges to Thursday’s vote, the AP reported. Hamid Bensaada, a lawmaker from the Movement for a Peaceful Society, showed reporters a lump on his head - with accompanying X-rays - that he said was the result of an attack by a soldier at a polling station in Blida, near Algiers.