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Algerian president re-elected in a landslide

Algeria’s president won re-election, the Interior Ministry announced Friday, in a vote tainted by allegations of electoral fraud.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Algeria’s president won re-election by a landslide, the Interior Ministry announced Friday, in a vote tainted by allegations of electoral fraud.

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika won 83 percent of Thursday’s vote, said Interior Minister Nourredine Zerhouni.

Bouteflika’s supporters began celebrating in the streets of Algiers after polls closed Thursday night, but several of the five rival candidates claimed the election was marred by fraud.

Zerhouni denied the allegations, saying that candidates had representatives at all polling stations to ensure the vote was held freely and fairly.

“I must point out there were observers from all campaigns around the country. The votes were placed under full control of those representatives,” the minister said.

It was the third multiparty presidential vote since 1995 in this North African nation struggling to emerge from more than a decade of Islamic-inspired bloodshed.

Bouteflika got more than the 50 percent support needed to avoid a runoff vote. Top rival former Prime Minister Ali Benflis took 8 percent, followed by Islamic leader Abdallah Djeballah with slightly less than 5 percent.

The official results still have to be validated by Algeria’s Constitutional Council. The turnout among Algeria’s 18 million voters was 59 percent.

“This is a moment of great joy — we are going to win in the first round,” said Abdeslam Bouchouareb, a Bouteflika campaign spokesman said Thursday. “The seeds we planted for the country have borne fruit.”

The president’s supporters flooded the streets of the capital, blaring car horns and brandishing large photos of Bouteflika.

Allies of his rivals sought to organize a rally but were repelled by riot police.

“They burned ballot boxes, harassed our election observers and blocked streets leading to the polls,” said Ali Mimouni, a spokesman for Benflis. “That confirms the fraud we were expecting.”

He offered no proof of his claims.

“It appears that he (Bouteflika) will have won with an outrageous score,” said Hamid Lounaouci, a spokesman for candidate Said Sadi. “We don’t accept it, and we are going to challenge it.”

Expressions of hope
Many Algerians expressed hope that the vote would signal an important step toward burgeoning democracy in an oil-rich country long dominated by the army and a bloody 12-year Islamic uprising.

Algeria was dominated for years under one-party rule by the National Front for Liberation — Benflis’ party. A multiparty system was set up in 1989, but efforts at full democracy have sputtered.

Voters turned out in smaller numbers than five years ago, when Bouteflika cruised to an easy victory after his six rivals quit the race on the eve of the vote.

Apathy was high as voters faced chronic housing shortages and unemployment rates of more than 20 percent. Many Algerian youths — about 75 percent of the population is under 30 years old — hold to dreams of fleeing to Europe to seek economic opportunity.

Algeria’s nearly 33 million people have lived in the shadow of a powerful military since gaining independence from France in 1962. Its Muslim extremist movement also has become an increasing source of terrorist activities in Europe and North America, feeding international groups that helped al-Qaida.

Bouteflika, a U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism, has presided over a decline in bloodshed linked to an Islamic uprising that erupted in 1992, after the army canceled legislative elections a militant Muslim party was poised to win. About 120,000 people have died in the violence.

The president’s backers say he was largely responsible for a decline in the violence and has returned a country long preoccupied with wrenching domestic ills onto the international stage.

Foes argued he has ruled with an iron grip, by stifling press freedoms, tampering with the judiciary and doing little to discourage corruption.

Some 120 election observers, most from Africa and the Middle East, were on hand. There are about 18 million people of voting age.

Aside from Bouteflika and Algeria’s first head of state, Ahmed Ben Bella, all presidents have been former generals. In an unprecedented move, the army vowed to remain neutral in this race. Soldiers for the first time were voting at regular polling stations, not military installations.