ALGIERS — Algerian political parties began a flurry of consultations following President Liamine Zeroual's call for early elections, and a newspaper said Saturday that his decision to step down was a "coup d'etat in disguise" by the powerful military establishment.
Officials said leaders of the ruling party, the National Democratic Rally, met Saturday to agree on a candidate to replace Zeroual, who surprised the violence-racked North African nation with his decision to cut short his term of office and hand over power to a new leader to be elected in February.
Officially, Zeroual, 56, is not a member of the National Democratic Rally, which controls 156 seats in the 360-member parliament, but the party actively supported him in the 1995 presidential election, which he won with a 60% majority.
"Virtually all the parties have been taken off guard by the president's decision. Their leaderships are meeting as we talk," an Arab diplomat said Saturday.
"But why he decided to step down 21 months before the end of his term is still a mystery. We hear different versions: that he is ill or that he has problems with influential army leaders."
Le Matin, an independent French-language daily, said Zeroual had abandoned his responsibilities, dealing "a terrible blow to the hopes of democracy nurtured by the Algerians."
"Where is the state of the law that protects us against a coup d'etat in disguise or against the intrigues of the establishment?" the paper asked, referring to the army, which has dominated Algeria's political life since independence from France in 1962.
Diplomats dismissed as unlikely that the army would loosen its grip on power and allow a civilian to run the country of 29 million. In his surprise speech to the nation on Friday, Zeroual said: "I believe that the time is appropriate to enter a new era of reinforcing democracy. . . . Therefore, I have decided with all conviction to reduce the term of my presidency."