Washington, DC — President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's coalition of political parties is favored to emerge victorious in the voting that began Thursday to elect 389 members of Algeria's lower house of parliament, but voter apathy, along with boycotts and violence by Islamic rebels, has put the election's credibility in doubt.
Over 10,000 candidates representing 23 parties, or running as independents, are contesting. Massive fraud marred the country's last elections in 1997, according to opponents of the Bouteflika government.
An opinion poll published by El Watan newspaper last week indicated that more than one-third of Algeria's 18-million voters were not planning to vote. "People are deeply disappointed by politicians in general and members of parliament in particular," one newspaper columnist wrote.
The two main opposition parties -- the Socialist Forces Front (FFS) and the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) -- called for a boycott, saying that the government's conduct of the poll repeats the fraudent process of 1997. Official results will not reflect the will of Algerians, they said.
Meanwhile, Berber activists in the Kabylie region who oppose governemnt policies called for a three-day "anti-vote" strike. The Berbers, who say they are North Africa's orginal inhabitants, finally won in April, a constitutional amendment making the Berber language, Tamazight, a national language, but they claim continuing discrimination by Algeria's Arab majority. They also charge that the government resists taking effective steps to end continuing official corruption.
Meanwhile, the violence that has plagued the country for the past decade continues. Twenty-three persons were reported killed this week in the village of Sendjas, 125 miles west of the capital Algiers, by Islamic extremists just hours before voting began. An estimated 150,000 people have died since 1992, when the military annulled the victory of the Islamic Salvation Front in general elections and the Front's supporters launched an insurgent campaign.
In this week's vote, the National Liberation Front (FLN), led by Prime Minister Ali Benflis, is expected to win the most seats, outpacing what has been the ruling coalition's most influential member, the National Democratic Rally (RND), which currently has the greatest number of seats in parliament.