The tabloid press, quoting "very reliable sources," described a Machiavellian series of events in which state television would first announce phony results on Thursday evening, the staging of massive street celebrations and a bloody crackdown on the expected backlash.

"Without the ballots, a putsch!" screamed the front page of the daily Le Soir.

Boutaflika's five challengers for the presidency, as well as the European Parliament's observer mission, agree that a first-round victory by Boutaflika, given the apparent distribution of support among the six candidates, would raise suspicions.

A joint communique issued on Tuesday by the president's three main rivals - his former right-hand man Ali Benflis, Islamist candidate Abd Allah Djab Allah and Said Sadi, a secularist - alleged a "plot" was being hatched in which Boutaflika's camp would claim victory with 53 to 55% of the vote before all the ballots were counted.

The campaign team of Algeria's first woman to run for president, far-left candidate Louisa Hanun, put out a separate statement saying "it cannot be ruled out that fraud may tarnish the credibility of this election."

And nationalist candidate Ali Fawzi Rebaine put his name to a statement by all five of Boutaflika's rivals alleging that "the first signs of plans for fraud" were already visible.

Previous election

The paper, Liberte, speaks of
an electoral conspiracy

The swirling charges as the clock ticks down to Thursday's polls are reminiscent of the atmosphere ahead of the 1999 election that brought Bouteflika to power. Then, all six of his rivals - who included Djab Allah - pulled out the day before, claiming that vote-rigging was already in full swing.

The private newspaper Liberte said Interior Minister Yazid Zerhuni would be coerced into playing the role of "big orchestrator of the electoral hold-up."

Ahmad Fattani, publisher of the daily L'Expression, said a first-round win by Boutaflika was likely, given his popularity and his efforts to end the traumatising civil war in the north African country of 32 million people.

Islamists

The conflict began in 1992, after the army cancelled the second round of a legislative election that the Islamist-dominated Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was poised to win.

Some 150,000 people, mainly civilians, have died in the war since then.
 
Boutaflika "has done things that aren't bad. He could do better, but in terms of security, now you can go out at night. There was a time when there were 500 people killed a day," Fattani told AFP.

Djabalah, who pulled out of 1999
election, is in the running again

While the president deserves to be re-elected in the first round, if he has to face an unprecedented run-off vote two weeks from now, "then we'll be in a real democracy," Fattani said.

He compared the two scenarios to the difference between black and white and colour television. "Which would you want?" he asked.

Fattani's L'Expression on Wednesday ran an exclusive interview with Ahmad Talib Ibrahimi, a respected former foreign minister who was one of the six candidates who withdrew in 1999.

"Everything depends on the conditions on the day of the vote," Ibrahimi said. "In my opinion, if there is no fraud, a second round is inevitable."
 
'Worth contesting'

For the first time since independence more than four decades ago, many Algerians sense that their vote can make a real difference this time, after assuming on past occasions - even in the multi-party elections allowed since 1990 - that the all-powerful military had pre-selected the winner.

"Everything depends on the conditions on the day of the vote ... In my opinion, if there is no fraud, a second round is inevitable"

Ahmad Talib Ibrahimi,
former Algerian Foreign Minister

What makes this election especially unpredictable is that Benflis, like Boutaflika a product of the military-backed establishment, is the president's top challenger.

Encouraged by liberalisation of the electoral law, a declaration of neutrality by the military and the presence of international observers, the candidates have mounted spirited campaigns described as "American-style" in the press.

"The fact that the candidates are still there means that in the minds of the candidates, the elections are still worth contesting," Pasqualina Neapoletano, head of the European Parliament observer team told reporters on Tuesday.

She said that if one candidate wins in a landslide, or just over 50%, "that will mean that something's wrong. We're not stupid."