30 May - 5 June 2002
Issue No.588
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Recommend this page

Berbers boycott polls

Algerians are set to elect a new parliament today. Polling has gone ahead despite calls for a boycott by the country's sizable Berber minority. Rasha Saad reports

Widespread apathy has been evident among Algeria's 18 million voters ahead of today's polls to elect a new parliament. This is the second parliamentary election since the army intervened in 1992 to prevent the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) from coming to power. Today's poll is taking place despite continuing confrontation between the state and armed Islamists amid an atmosphere of severe economic hardship. Hardest hit are the Berbers, who make up about one-fifth of the country's population of 31 million. Nearly 18 million Algerians are registered voters.

Ethnic Berbers opposed to legislative elections in Algeria have besieged government buildings in their northeastern Kabylie homeland in a bid to disrupt the vote. According to reports, protesters besieged about 15 local government offices and 50 town halls on Sunday and Monday, forcing civil servants to lock up the premises and flee.

Meanwhile, the government has barred foreign reporters from travelling to the Kabylie region ahead of the election. The Algerian authorities have imposed police escorts on foreign journalists visiting the North African country since 1995 to protect them from possible attacks by militant Islamists.

The Kabylie has been a source of discontent since a security forces crackdown last year, in which dozens of Berbers were killed. These events have fuelled discontent elsewhere in the country, spawning frequent riots and strikes. Tribal leaders have branded the elections as a sham and vowed to do everything in their power to disrupt polling.

In addition, two pro-Berber opposition parties, the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) and the Socialist Forces Front (FFS), have called for a boycott of the elections.

A very low turnout is expected in today's election. According to an opinion poll carried out last week, more than a third of Algerian voters did not intend to vote in the parliamentary elections. The survey, carried out by the French-language daily Al-Watan, stated that 38 per cent of 2,634 people surveyed between 9-16 May did not intend to cast their ballot in the 30 May election. However, Algerian President Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika has urged Algerians "to vote en masse."

The current ruling coalition comprises of the National Democratic Rally (RND), founded in 1997 under then-President Liamine Zeroual, the National Liberation Front (FLN), and the Movement of Society for Peace (MSP), a moderate Islamist party.

Most observers and a large section of the press expect the same forces to dominate the next parliament, a prediction supported by a voter survey, also carried out by Al-Watan, which found that 70 per cent of respondents planned to vote for one of the three parties.

However, analysts and political leaders have voiced concern that an expected low turnout might allow Islamists to grab a majority in the new 389-member chamber. FIS is officially banned from running for elections, but some of its historic leaders and other Islamist figures are running as candidates through other recognised opposition parties such as the National Reform Movement, led by Abdullah Gaballah.

But Interior Minister Yazid Zerhouni discredited such reports saying that "our surveys show the very opposite."

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