international analysis and commentary

General elections in Algeria: no upheaval but slow change

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Several months before the general elections in Algeria, authorities made every effort to persuade the citizens to vote en masse, stressing the importance of the elections for their own future and that of their country. What this insistence actually revealed was a fear of mass absenteeism due to widespread feelings of weariness, pessimism and despair shared by many Algerians, especially among the younger generations. New parties were authorized to campaign a few weeks before the election, and for the first time since the country’s independence no fewer than forty-four political parties and independent tickets ran in the election. The authorities interpreted this as a sign of genuine democracy and of a multi-party system; the opposition, on the other hand, argued that it was an obvious and pernicious move on the authorities’ part to fragment the vote and to forge a Mickey Mouse political class. And as for the common voter, this bewildering array of equally unknown yet remarkably similar party acronyms was simply a source of confusion. 

Indeed, several analysts expected a large number of voters to simply choose from among the traditional parties best known to them. But the results announced by the Interior Ministry the day after the election came as a surprise to many people: voter turnout topped the 44% mark, as opposed to less than 36% in 2007; the National Liberation Party (FLN), formerly the only party on the scene, won a majority, grabbing 220 of the 642 seats in the new National People’s Assembly APN), trailed by the National Rally for Democracy (RND), another party close to the authorities and led by Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, with 68 seats. That makes the FLN-RND alliance the strongest force in parliament, thus the new legislative term is going to be identical to the one now coming to an end, in which that same alliance held the majority alongside the Movement of Society for Peace (MSP), of Islamist inspiration, which had formed a “presidential alliance” with the other two parties. 

We should remember that that alliance was forged a few months before the presidential election in 2004, in support of the presidential platform and of the candidacy of outgoing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. A few months before the May 10th election, however, the MSP decided to quit the alliance in order to form the “Green Algeria Alliance” with two other Islamist parties, Ennahda and El-Islah, a strategic decision aiming, in reality, to reap the greatest benefit from the “Arab Spring”. With the rise of the Islamist parties in Tunisia, in Libya, and in Egypt, Algeria’s Islamists thought that they were going to achieve the same kind of result, especially in view of the fact that Algerian society is deeply religious and that anything to do with religion is considered sacred. However, what they failed to take into account is the fact that the Algerians have suffered so terribly under the scourge of barbarous terrorism that what they aspire to more than anything else is peace and stability.

The terrorism of the 1990s was the result of the use of religion as an expedient. The Algerians had figured that out pretty quickly and they were not about to relive the painful experience.  The result is that the “Green Alliance” managed to win only 48 seats, way below the figure it had been expecting. A majority of Algerians felt that it was preferable to vote for the FLN, “whom we know very well”, rather than to run the risk of giving a vote to the Islamists or to parties which were not well known.

One of the “novelties” in this election was also the participation of the Socialist Forces Front (FFS), which had been boycotting elections for the previous ten years. Its power base is focused in the Kabylie region, an area known for its opposition to the regime and for producing the lowest voter turnout at every election. The FFS, led by Hocine Ait-Ahmed, came in fourth with 21 seats, followed by the Workers’ Party (PT) with 20 seats. The rest of the seats were spread out among the other parties (between one and two seats each).

As soon as the results were known, a majority of the political class cried “fraud” and denounced the maneuvering of the authorities to return the FLN in force and to thus keep the current system in place. Instances of irregularity and of fraud were mentioned by the chairmen of the parties, many of whom organized news conferences to voice their deploration. But what also worked in the FLN’s favor was the fact that a far from negligible number of voters thought that in voting FLN, they were voting for Bouteflika. This is especially true of the illiterate who were not aware of the nature of the vote, to the point where many of them were looking for a photograph of the president on their ballot papers because they were convinced that it was a presidential election.

Another factor that worked in the FLN’s favor was a speech, deliberately designed to appeal to people’s emotions, which Bouteflika delivered only a couple of days before the vote, and in which he appealed to the Algerian people to go to the ballot booth while taking great care to remind them of his own political allegiance – and of course everyone knows that it is the FLN. 

But despite a relatively encouraging voter turnout, it is worth pointing out that the younger voters are the least numerous to have gone to the polls because they are the voters least convinced of the contribution that a parliamentarian can make to improving their daily lives.  So numerous appeals were made to the Constitutional Council, which published the final results five days after the election. While it was expected that a few seats would be assigned to the grumpier parties (such as the PT and the Islamists), the Council decided to add one seat to the FLN’s total (bringing it to 221) and two to the RND’s score (bringing it to 70), while the Green Alliance was deprived of a seat and the PT of three.

The biggest winners in this election have been women, their presence shooting up from 7% to almost 32% in the present parliament thanks a new law imposing a quota of 30% of women deputies.

After this election, we are basically looking at the same political picture we saw 20 years ago, with the difference that other political groupings have now entered the scene. But it is the FLN that is running the country. As one crestfallen party leader remarked, “All of that… for this?” I am tempted to say that “having to choose between the plague and cholera”, or rather between the plague (the FLN-RND alliance) and AIDS (the Islamists), I am certainly happier for the former to win because in any case the choice for change is not really in our hands.

In a genuine democracy, the people’s choice is sovereign, and when you agree to play the game, you need to face the consequences and take it right to the end. It is high time the authorities in Algeria stop trying to use the Islamists as an expedient, pitting them against the democrats simply in order to hang on to their own power, at the risk of having once again to pay an extremely high price for their obstination.