Chance for change

THE presidential election in Algeria represents a major milestone in the violence-wracked North African country's democratic growth.

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Published: Fri 9 Apr 2004, 1:07 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 1:05 AM

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, campaigning for a second five-year term on a record of national reconciliation which supporters claim has led to a reduction in political violence, remained the front-runner as voters headed to the polling stations on Thursday. If no candidate emerges with a clear majority in the first round of voting, there will be a runoff later this month. Much is at stake in the election for a country recovering from over a decade-long bloody insurgency that has claimed more than 100,000 lives. Significantly, this is the first election since US President George W. Bush announced his Middle East democracy initiative. Algeria has emerged as a major ally in the US campaign against terror. Unlike five years ago, when Bouteflika's six rivals pulled out on the eve of the election amid allegations of fraud, Algerians have had a diverse array of candidates to choose from.

Although Bouteflika's five challengers accused him of having exploited his control of state television, the courts and the treasury to gain an unfair advantage, the election is expected to be the freest since Algeria won independence from France in 1962. President Bouteflika invited international organisations to send monitors. The military, which cancelled parliamentary election Islamists were poised to win in 1992, sparking the insurgency, has lowered its profile. Campaigning, too, was relatively peaceful. Although reports of attacks on candidates' election offices, disruptions of rallies, burglary and the tearing up of posters, among other things, were reported, these incidents were relatively minor by Algerian standards.

Algeria's economy has made considerable gains in recent years. The government's debt restructuring, trade liberalisation, public-sector reform and anti-inflation measures, together with favourable world prices for oil - the country's key export - have revitalised Algeria's economic base. Gross domestic product grew by 6.8 percent last year, while foreign debt fell from $28.3 billion to $22 billion. Unemployment, however, remains the biggest challenge. To address this, Algeria needs to do more to draw foreign investors who are still wary of security concerns. Much would depend on the credibility of the election results.

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