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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 April, 2004, 12:43 GMT 13:43 UK
Algerian leader eyes poll victory
By Heba Saleh
BBC, Algeria

The face of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika looks out from rows of election posters covering the grand Arabesque facade of the post office building which dominates the main square in downtown Algiers.

Ali Benflis
Observers say Mr Benflis is a serious challenge at the elections
Indeed, wherever you look in this bustling city, your eye is likely to fall on the blue posters of Mr Bouteflika adorning the whitewashed walls of colonial style buildings glinting under the Mediterranean sun.

Mr Bouteflika is seeking another five-year term as president of Algeria.

Of the six candidates competing for the post in Thursday's election, he is regarded as the front runner.

He appears to have surmounted opposition from influential sections of the army, which controls power in the country and which had initially brought him to office in 1999.

Amnesty

Mr Bouteflika's critics accuse him of being an autocrat who pays lip service to democracy, but has no interest in real pluralism.

His election rivals say he has rigged the election in advance by exploiting his presidential office to gain unfair advantages over them.

They cite his nightly appearances on state television for months as he toured the country distributing public funds and addressing rallies.

ALGERIA ELECTIONS
Eligible voters: 18,095,000
Voters in Algeria: 17,126,000
Voters abroad: 959,000
Polling stations: 39,869
Electoral districts: 9,806
Funding: 5bn dinars (nearly $70m) for adverts and posters
Posters: 19,000 sites allocated
Rally venues: 3,000 halls and stadiums

But even so, many Algerians say they will vote for Mr Bouteflika because they credit him with having restored peace to the country.

Critics may point out that the groundwork for ending the Islamic insurgency which has raged since 1992 was laid by Mr Bouteflika's predecessor, Liamine Zeroual, but for many Algerians, it was during the Bouteflika years that security returned to Algeria.

In 1999, shortly after Mr Bouteflika came to office, he offered an amnesty to Islamic militants who agreed to lay down their arms.

This, in addition to vigorous military campaigns by the army succeeded in achieving a sharp drop in the level of violence.

Serious rival

Militant groups are still active in some parts of Algeria, but as one local journalist put it, "terrorism is no longer the main issue in people's conversations."

Riots in Kabylia
Riots broke out when Bouteflika visited Kabylia
Mr Bouteflika's policy of national reconciliation remains his strongest asset in this election.

But still the president has many detractors in the army and outside it, and some of them have chosen to throw their weight behind his main rival Ali Benflis.

A former prime minister, he was sacked last year by Mr Bouteflika when he refused give up his presidential ambitions and would not pledge him the backing of his party, the National Liberation Front.

Mr Benflis is believed to enjoy the support of some in the army.

He is seen as a serious rival who might survive into a second round against Mr Bouteflika.

'Berber militants'

Another strong candidate is Abdallah Djaballah, the leader of Islah or the Movement for National Reform, a moderate Islamist party, which has maintained a reputation for independence, and has made strong gains in parliamentary elections two years ago.

Also standing is Louisa Hanoune, a left-wing nationalist and the first Algerian woman to compete in a presidential election.

The two remaining candidates, Said Saadi and Ali Fawzi Rebain, are both from the Berber-speaking region of Kabylia.

Mr Saadi is the better-established politician, but his appeal is not thought to extend beyond his region.

But even there, a grass roots protest movement has called for a boycott of the poll to protest against the authorities' refusal to grant a list of demands which include the elevation of the Berber tongue Tamazight to the status of an official language.





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