Algeria’s Recent Elections: Plus ça change…

An Algerian man inspects a poster of candidates in the lead up to the May 10th Algerian parliamentary elections. Photo: Magharebia. flickrAlgeria remains a country stagnated. In countries both to its east and west, radical developments have been taking place as a result of the Arab Spring. Libya managed to oust Gaddafi and his infamous regime.  Egypt was arguably the epicentre of the revolutionary movement that swept across North Africa and the Middle East. Tunisia successfully toppled a ruling family and is now on the smooth path to a functioning democracy. Morocco’s King Mohammed recently ceded some ground to an elected government. As for Algeria? Well, when Algeria went to the polls on May 10th to elect a new parliament, the question was raised once again: why did effectively nothing happen in North Africa’s largest country during the Arab Spring of 2011?

It came as no shock to anyone that Algeria’s governing party, the National Liberation Front (FLN), comprehensively won the May 10th elections. The FLN won 220 out of 463 seats with its partner in government, the National Democratic Rally (RND), coming second winning 68 seats. In third place came an alliance made up of three Islamist parties, the Green Algeria Alliance. While the results were to no one’s surprise, the turnout of 42.9% was indeed higher than expected.

The ruling FLN attempted to present the vote as a sign of democratic reform, an alternative to the radical pro-democracy protests of the Arab Spring. The unrest of the Arab Spring managed to pass Algeria by but its political elite has come under some intense pressure to reform. In order to appease the public, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika approved the establishment of 23 new political parties prior to the election while increasing the number of parliament seats to 463. As well as this, authorities allowed over 500 foreign observers to monitor the election in order to demonstrate the transparency and freedom of the electoral process. This did little to satisfy the Algerian people.

Algerians have used this election to reveal their anger at the current political system. While opposition activists did not achieve the mass abstention they were hoping for, they do claim that the turnout figure was inflated by the authorities. The Algerian interior minister called the turnout ‘remarkable’ but the fact that 57.1% of the population boycotted the election is hardly encouraging.  What the figure does do though is to reveal the climate of mistrust, cynicism and resentment against the political system of Algeria where a military government has ruled for the past twenty years.

Algerian men at a pro-democracy protest in Brussels, February 2011.Photo: Gwenaël Piaser. flickrMany Algerians did not bother to vote on May 10th because they simply no longer trust the FLN. For ordinary citizens, they believe that the election will do nothing to address the lack of jobs for young people, particularly university graduates, or the large-scale corruption that still exists in all areas of political and economic life. This political apathy is nothing new. Since the Algerian War of Independence began in 1954, the FLN has dominated the county’s political life. In 1989, Algeria abandoned its one-party system only for the military to take control in 1992. This led to a decade of violence in which about 200,000 people were killed. The scars of the civil war have never properly healed and there exists strong contempt towards the current political elite, the FLN.

This discontent toward the FLN nearly boiled over during the Arab Spring last year where deadly riots briefly took place in Algeria in January 2011. However, these short-lived riots didn’t lead to the mass protests that took place in other Arab countries. Various factors existed that didn’t allow for the Arab Spring to catch on in Algeria such as a fragmented population and the memory of the recent bitter and violent civil war. As well as this, numerous policies were introduced by the government in an attempt to appease the people. These included a relaxation of tax laws, lifting the 19 year-old state of emergency, allowing for the creation of new political parties and promising to amend the constitution. The government were successful in their limited reforms and promises with no Tahir square-like protests taking place.

The fact that 57.1% of Algerians didn’t even bother to vote in the recent election reveals that Algeria faces major problems. The country has a soaring unemployment rate among young people who make up a third of the 37 million population while corruption still rife in everyday life. Then there’s the seemingly never-ending dominance of the FLN and the strong presence and power of the military in the government. All this does not bode well for the future of Algeria. President Bouteflika recently declared that ‘the Arab spring for me is a disaster’ and that it was a ‘plague’ that has led to the ‘the colonisation of Iraq, the destruction of Libya, the partition of Sudan and the weakening of Egypt’.  This is the view of the Algerian political elite; not the view held by the ordinary Algerians themselves. While the Arab Spring may not have had any far-ranging effects on Algeria just yet, the next couple of years could prove to be a decisive period in Algerian’s history. 


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