U.S. Expresses Concerns Over Algerian Elections

U.S. Expresses Concerns Over Algerian Elections

By REUTERS, The New York Times, January 25, 2004

ALGIERS (Reuters) – The United States is concerned by reports that presidential elections in Algeria will not be free and fair and has called on Algeria to show it is moving toward a democracy, a senior U.S. official said on Sunday.

The comments were seen as the most critical by a Western government ahead of the April vote, although diplomats have privately expressed similar concerns, political analysts said.

Lorne Craner, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, told a news conference that Algeria had an opportunity to show the world that « it has moved beyond the 1990s and is well on the path to joining the growing number of democracies around the world. »

The election will be seen abroad as a gauge of the oil-rich North African country’s political and economic stability after a decade of bloodshed led by Islamic militants in which human rights groups say more than 150,000 died.

The violence was sparked by the cancellation by army-backed authorities of 1992 parliamentary elections that a radical Islamic party was poised to win.

Craner said elections would be fairer if public television and radio gave opposition candidates more access. There is no private television or radio network in Algeria.

He also questioned the need to keep the state of emergency law in force since the early 1990s now that violence has sharply fallen. The law bans demonstrations in the capital Algiers.

Over the past six months independent newspaper editors and journalists have been taken in for police questioning and some given suspended prison sentences for insulting the president. Several top opposition presidential candidates, including former Prime Minister Ali Benflis, accuse President Abdelaziz Bouteflika of quashing political parties and the independent press and using state funds to get re-elected.

They have threatened to boycott the vote if conditions do not improve, which would be a repeat of 1999 when all candidates apart from Bouteflika — backed by the powerful military — withdrew citing unfair elections.

The United States and Western governments are keen to see stability in a volatile region hit by Islamic rebel violence, particularly in the post-September 11, 2001.

Craner said: « We will closely follow the election as we are following events leading up to the election and it is our hope that that part of the equation will permit us to greatly expand our cooperation. »

Secretary of State Colin Powell on a visit to Algiers last year stressed the importance of holding free elections and said he had received assurances from Bouteflika.

« We remain concerned about reports of harassment of journalists, the uneven coverage of all points of view by the public media, and an uneven political playing field, » said Craner, who is on a three-day official visit.

Bouteflika has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and promised free and fair elections.