The first test of political reforms announced by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in his speech to the nation on April 15, 2011 in the wake of the Arab revolutions, was the parliamentary elections held on May 10, 2012. While foreign media and political observers expected an Islamist wave, as was the case in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Algeria has said no to fatalism. The election was free, transparent and democratic, as confirmed by over 200 observers from the European Union who monitored the vote.
Why the Islamists lost?
It is important to understand why Algeria has not sunk into fundamentalism. As the “Arab Spring” has seen the emergence of Islamist parties and their seizure of power in several countries, the Algerian people have refused to give a voice to Islamists gathered in the Green Alliance (MSP, Ennahda and Islah) and to other leaders such as those of the Djaballah party (Justice and Development) and the Menasra party (Change Front). The dissolved Islamic Front of Salvation party (FIS) had plunged Algeria into a decade-long civil war that killed more than 200,000 people in the 1990s, but the fact remains that many Algerians believe that if Islamists of the FIS had demonstrated political prudence, instead of opting for terrorism in an attempt to gain power, they would have enjoyed popular support. Yet the recent election suggests otherwise.
It should not be forgotten that the new generation of Algerians, including those born in the early 1990s, does not know the Islamist leaders of the time. But the average age of voters was between 35 and 65: this is the generation that lived through and suffered from terrorism and thus voted for the conservative parties. Equally important, the abstention rate was 58%, which means that in any case young people did not vote for the Islamists and voted even less for the traditional parties.
Young people in Algeria tend to be apolitical and reject Islamism, as well as the ruling parties: they fear terrorism while being critical of poor governance.
These factors have proved that voters chose the Front of National Liberation party (FLN) because it symbolizes stability and security – especially considering the current level of instability at Algeria’s borders with Libya and Mali and the instability being experienced in Tunisia and Egypt. Indeed, the FLN and the National Rally for Democracy party (NRD) have explicitly built their election campaigns on fear of the risk of partition in Libya and of the situation in Mali (which suffered a coup d’etat in March). There is also a historical legacy that foreign observers often forget to take into consideration: Algeria is the only Arab country that achieved independence after a war of liberation. Other countries such as Tunisia, Morocco or Egypt were under protectorates and have not experienced comparable nationalist uprisings: this explains why nationalism is much more important than party affiliation in Algeria.
Social change and women
Women’s suffrage was also an important asset in the defeat of the Islamists. Women have become a growing component of the Algerian workforce over the past 20 years. In education, health and administration, women now constitute an important element of the labor market. Their presence has greatly influenced the vote in favor of the FLN and the RND, also because President Bouteflika has reformed the family code by granting women more rights.
The growing role of women was also highlighted by the visit of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Algeria on February 26: her message in favor of women’s participation in politics seems to have influenced the elections. Parties have integrated women in their lists of candidates and the government has insisted on women’s representation in parliament.
The result: 145 women were elected in the May 10th parliamentary elections. This is not only an important factor in social development and democracy, but also a fundamental element in the struggle against religious extremism, given the controversial views of political Islam on the role of women – not just in politics but also in society and the economy.
In short, the complexity of an Algerian society that cherishes its traditions and religion, while avoiding extremism and desiring modernity, explains the outcome of the vote.
In this context, even the victory of Amar Ghoul was not due to his position at the top of the Green Alliance list, but more likely to the fact that he is a government minister and has a record of supporting and pursuing public utility projects, such as roads and highways, that are appreciated by the people.
As for the immediate political future of President Bouteflika, he has passed the first test. However, he has been called to quickly change the government and start a new wave of reforms. Two years away from the 2014 presidential elections, all scenarios are open.
Meanwhile, the key question remains: what is the future of democracy and political reform in Algeria? The current democratic and secular leaders must seize this opportunity – now that the Islamist parties have been at least temporarily sidelined or contained.