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Thursday, March 25, 1999 Published at 13:06 GMT

World: Middle East

Algeria launches election campaign

This month alone about 200 have been killed

By North Africa Correspondent Heba Saleh

The official campaign for the presidential election in Algeria has begun, against a background of continuing violence.

The seven candidates will spend the next three weeks criss-crossing the country, addressing rallies and trying to arouse interest in an electorate which so far has not shown great enthusiasm.

[ image: Abdelaziz Bouteflika: Frontrunner]
Abdelaziz Bouteflika: Frontrunner
Restoring peace will be an important theme, as this month alone more than 200 people have been killed in the conflict between armed Islamists and the security forces.

The frontrunner is expected to be a former Foreign Minister Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the choice of most of the military-backed establishment.

Another former Foreign Minister Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi is being supported by exiled leaders of the outlawed Islamic Salvation Front (FIS).

The imminent FIS victory in legislative elections in 1992 prompted the army to annul the poll, triggering the current conflict.

Early elections

In a surprise announcement last September, President Liamine Zeroual said he was cutting short his term in office and holding early elections in which he would not be a candidate.

[ image: Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi: Supported by outlawed FIS]
Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi: Supported by outlawed FIS
The speculation at the time was that the Mr Zeroual's decision was the result of disagreements within the army which controls power in Algeria.

This will be the fifth time that Algerians have gone to the polls since 1995.

Then, Liamine Zeroual was elected president on the promise that he would restore peace to a country torn apart by violence triggered by the army's cancellation in 1992 of legislative elections to prevent an Islamist party from winning.

But so far, peace has remained elusive.

Front-runner Bouteflika

So far, observers in Algiers say the man most likely end up as president is Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a former foreign minister who has been out of politics for the past 20 years.

Mr Bouteflika is widely perceived as the candidate of the military-backed ruling establishment.

He has the support of the two main parties in the government coalition as well as the open backing of senior military figures.

It is not clear, however, if the army leadership are all agreed on backing his candidacy.

Dialogue with FIS

Mr Bouteflika has been quoted as saying that he would like to re-establish Algerians' trust in their national institutions and that he would not exclude dialogue with anyone, including individuals from the outlawed FIS.

But observers say that Mr Bouteflika will have to win in an honest election, and prove that he has not been imposed by the army, if he is to have any hope of bringing about national reconciliation.

In a free and fair election, Mr Bouteflika would be expected to run into stiff competition from Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi, another former foreign minister and the son of a renowned religious scholar.

Exiled leaders of the FIS say they will call for their supporters to vote for him.

Hamrouche - reformer

Another strong candidate is former Prime Minister Mouloud Hamrouche, who says that if elected he would bring political freedoms and law-bound government to the country.

A regime insider who has an established reputation as a reformer, Mr Hamrouche appeals to the young.

He is also seen as a man prepared to launch initiatives towards the Islamists without being an Islamist himself.

Observers say he could be expected to attract the votes of several constituencies including those of the Islamist electorate, if he makes it to the second round of the election against Mr Bouteflika.

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