Apr 13, 1999

Testing Democracy: Elections in Algeria and Turkey | By Jerry Meldon | published in Consortium News on April 13, 1999

Amid bitter civil strife, Algeria and Turkey hold elections this week that will test the two countries’ commitment to democracy when voters favor Islamic-oriented candidates. Algerians go to the polls on Thursday and Turks vote on Sunday.

In both countries, the specter of military intervention hovers over the polls, especially if voters continue to show popular support for parties that advocate stronger adherence to Islamic traditions. After recent elections, military-backed officials in both countries blocked the will of voters who had favored Islamic parties over parties that were both more secular and more corrupt.

The Algerian crisis began in the late 1980s. Algerians had grown tired of a quarter century of one-party rule by the National Liberation Front (FLN), the political arm of the guerilla army that won independence from France in 1962. Algeria was suffering, too, from an economic downturn caused by a precipitous drop in oil and gas prices.

In 1988, runaway unemployment sparked riots and convinced the FLN that it should allow multiparty competition in elections. The political opening benefited the Islamic Salvation Front, known as the FIS. In December 1991, FIS candidates won a landslide victory in the first round of national elections.

Two weeks later, however, Algeria's army canceled the second round because the FIS was the odds-on favorite to win. The coup forced the resignation of President Chadli Bendjedid, who had been in office for more than a decade and had promoted the opening of Algeria’s electoral process. The army's rationale for the coup: it was saving the country from an anti-democratic Islamic movement.

Soon afterwards, the military declared a state of emergency. The FIS was dissolved as a legal political party and the political violence intensified. The Bush administration, which had close ties to the secular Algerian government, made no protest against the army’s move.

The new president, Mohammed Boudiaf, sought negotiations with the Islamic militants as well as the resignation of the army chief-of-staff, General Mohamed Lamari. After challenging the military, Boudiaf was assassinated, a murder widely blamed on military hard-liners.

Soon after Boudiaf’s death, a full-scale civil war erupted. The violence often pitted government-sponsored death squads against Armed Islamic Groups [GIA], a force whose leaders included fundamentalist extremists. By 1996, massacres were occurring almost daily. In nighttime attacks, armed men would hack women and children to death. Frequently, nearby police would stand by passively.

In Turkey, corrupt governing politicians -- some connected to neo-fascist movements and organized crime – have undermined public confidence in recent years. Some of those secret links literally crashed into public view in November 1996 when a speeding black Mercedes collided with a tractor near the village of Susurluk. The crash killed three people: a top police official, a leader of the neo-fascist Grey Wolves and a Mafia hit woman.

Subsequent investigations revealed that senior Turkish officials had maintained close ties to both the Grey Wolves and organized crime as strategies for eliminating political opponents and crushing Kurdish separatists.

In the face of this government corruption, the Islamic Welfare Party gained ground. It won a plurality in a national election and assumed the leading role in a coalition government that took office in Ankara in 1996.

But the fear of "anti-democratic" Islam reached a fever pitch in 1997. A military-backed state prosecutor outlawed the Islamic Welfare Party on the grounds that the party violated the 75-year-old rule of secular government as enunciated by Turkey's modern political father, Mustapha Kemal.

The prosecutor also banned Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, Welfare’s leader, from politics for five years. Following in the footsteps of the Bush administration, which had tacitly supported Algeria’s coup against the popular will, the Clinton administration acquiesced to the power grab by Turkey’s military. Washington sent the helicopters and other military equipment used by Turkey’s army in a scorched earth campaign against Kurdish separatists.

Critics of the Turkish coup argued that the Islamic Welfare Party advocated only modest changes in the secularism of modern Turkish society, such as closing government offices at 4:30 p.m. during Ramadan holy days and loosening restrictions against women wearing headscarves.

This week’s elections represent new tests of pluralist democracy for both countries.

In Turkey, where legislative offices are at stake, the Islamic Welfare Party has been reincarnated as the Virtue Party. Despite last-minute attempts to ban the Virtue Party as well as a pro-Kurdish party, both opposition groups will appear on the ballots.

In Algeria, the presidency is at stake. Dr. Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi, a former Algerian prime minister and son of an Islamic scholar, supports negotiations with the banned FIS. Mouloud Hamrouche, another candidate, also supports dialogue with the Islamists. But the frontrunner appears to be Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who is supported by powerful generals.