Algeria Holds Elections, and Few Care

Amar Khaldi lives in a room with eight relatives. He rarely has running water and now his modest grocery store recently ravaged by floods has been ordered shut. 

Like many Algerians, the last thing on Khaldi's mind is Thursday's legislative election. "What's the point of voting? It's going to change nothing," he said with a shrug. 

Reeling from an ethnic Berber uprising and a decade of violence by Islamic insurgents, the North African country of 30 million people is choosing legislators in a vote seen as vital to its search for real stability. 

The bloodshed continued Thursday, however. Just hours before the vote, 23 people were massacred in a village 125 miles from the capital Algiers. 

In the Berber capital of Tizi Ouzou, several hundred rioters threw rocks at voting bureaus, and police used tear gas to break up demonstrations. Streets were deserted as Berbers boycotted the elections. 

Around Algeria, road blocks have been erected along major roads to guard against terrorist attacks, and heavy police presence could be seen around schools that served as polling stations. 

In addition, many voters have turned away from the elections because of anger over soaring unemployment, crammed housing, severe water shortages and charges the results have already been decided. Many believe the coalition partners of Prime Minister Ali Benflis are sure to retain control of parliament. 

The biggest unknown will likely be the abstention rate. 

At the Abdel Kader high school in the rundown Algiers neighborhood of Bab-el-Oued, polling stations were almost empty. 

Outside, Mohand Ghouat, 43, a railway engineer, said that "to vote would be an insult to the dignity of all Algerians." 

At 11:00 a.m., nearly 12 percent of voters nationwide had cast their ballots, the Interior Ministry said. In the Berber region of Kabyle, only 2 percent of voters had gone to polls. A pre-vote poll published in the daily El Watan predicted about 38 percent of eligible voters would not cast ballots. 

The dissatisfaction has been abetted by boycott calls from the country's sizable Berber minority. Two leading opposition parties, both pro-Berber, the Socialist Forces' Front and the Rally for Culture and Democracy, have called for a boycott of Thursday's vote. 

Relations between government forces and the Berbers have been tense since Algeria won independence from France in 1962. The Berbers — who claim to be North Africa's original inhabitants — want their language to be officially recognized by the government and demand an end to what they say is discrimination by the Arab majority. 

Riots swept through the Berber region last year after a teen-ager was killed while in police custody. At least 60 people died. 

Berbers make up about a third of the population in the former French colony. While most don't live in Kabyle, east of Algiers, a boycott there could weigh on the abstention rate. 

Algeria has also been battered by an Islamic guerrilla war that erupted after the army scrapped legislative elections that a Muslim fundamentalist party was poised to win. Since 1992, an estimated 120,000 people have been killed in fighting. 

The last elections in 1997 gave Algeria its first multiparty assembly but were themselves tarnished by allegations of fraud. 

Opponents predict the main partners in Algeria's coalition government, like the National Liberation Front of Prime Minister Ali Benflis and the National Democratic Rally, will retain control this time around. 

In Algiers, in the overcrowded working class neighborhood of Bab el-Oued, official billboards set aside for campaign posters were mostly empty. 

"There has been hardly any electioneering here," said Khaldi, who is of Berber origin. "Candidates know we're not interested. We have too many problems of our own." 

Khaldi's grocery shop was destroyed by mudslides unleashed by massive floods that ravaged the neighborhood in November, leaving more than 700 dead. 

Now, authorities have told him his row of shops, lying on the edge of a field once filled with homes destroyed by the floods, will be walled off. 

The misery here was all the more apparent when, seeing a foreigner, crowds of youths called out "give us visas!" 

"Those in power are thieves and liars," said Djoghlaf Madjid, a 47-year-old hospital worker who says that he won't vote. 

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has vowed the elections will be free and warned against attempts to undermine them. 

But a grass-roots Berber leader, Abrika Belaid, who has been living in hiding for nearly two months, said in an interview published Wednesday in the daily El Watan: "The ruling powers have reached an impasse and are beginning to panic."