At the midpoint in Algeria’s official three-week campaign period, popular enthusiasm around the upcoming May 10 parliamentary elections appears low, a democracy assistance official reports, even as – for the first time in several decades – the election results are hard to predict.
The ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) entered the campaign period split by a long-simmering internal battle that erupted on the eve of the campaign when the party’s secretary general locked himself in party headquarters and from its windows traded accusations with a crowd of dissenting members in the street below. The National Rally for Democracy (RND), part of the majority coalition in the current parliament, recently faced accusations of abusing state resources, but remains well organized and may yet perform strongly.
A coalition of Islamist parties—the Movement of Society for Peace (MSP or Hamas), the Movement for National Reform (Islah) and the Islamic Renaissance Movement (Ennahda)—is running joint slates across the country in a bid to capitalize on Islamist momentum in other North African elections. However, some analysts suggest that the coalition’s appeal could be limited by the MSP’s past participation in the FLN-led government and the coalition’s failure to include other Islamist parties whose leaders have popular support.
Algeria’s oldest opposition party, the Front of Socialist Forces, has re-entered the scene after boycotting the last three legislative polls. Another prominent opposition party, the Rally for Culture and Democracy, announced that it will boycott the elections even as one of its key demands, accreditation for international observers, was met.
After a slow start to the campaign period on April 15, the 44 parties and independent candidate lists competing for 462 seats in the parliament’s lower chamber began increasing efforts to woo voters this week. Observers have noted more signs of campaigning, with posters, door-to-door canvassing, vans blasting campaign songs in urban areas, and small- to medium-sized rallies holding in recent days.
But many Algerians, conscious of past limits on parliamentary power and disillusioned by a history of flawed elections, still seem skeptical. Parties have put forward few concrete proposals to address public concerns, and voters report being unable to distinguish between party platforms. There are numerous traditional leaders among the candidates, though the RND has alternated men and women on all its candidate lists; and several independent lists and smaller parties have nominated numerous young people as candidates. Campaign posters have been defaced or torn down as quickly as parties can post them. Some parties replace the posters on an almost daily basis, while others say they will wait until the campaign’s final days to make a major visibility push. Campaigning will conclude May 6 and be followed by a three-day moratorium on campaigning before election day.
The Algerian government has characterized these elections as an important step in the reform process initiated by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April 2011. Bouteflika has said that the new parliament, which has traditionally had limited influence in governance, will play a prominent role in the next phase of the reform process, including planned revisions to the country’s current constitution. Still, some citizens and party activists have expressed skepticism to long-term election observers and anticipate that turnout will be low. And even as the government launched a modest voter mobilization effort, authorities maintain that it is the responsibility of political parties to ensure a high turnout. Official turnout for the 2007 parliamentary elections was 35.6 percent, with an invalid ballot rate of more than 14 percent.
A group of activists, including representatives of several small political parties, is calling for a boycott. It is unclear how large the movement is or how the movement would measure its effectiveness against the expected low turnout. Leaders of the group told observers that they want voters to “actively” boycott by publicly expressing their contempt for the system, rather than just not showing up to vote. The movement tried to organize a rally in Algiers earlier this month, but participants were arrested upon arrival at the public square where the gathering was to be held. (Although a 19-year state of emergency was lifted in March 2011, separate regulations still bar unauthorized rallies in the capital.)
Separately, a group of civil society organizations recently formed a coalition with the intent of monitoring the election process. The coalition requested approval from the Ministry of Interior (MOI) to enter polling stations, but has yet to receive a response. MOI officials maintain that there is no need to accredit citizen observers because the vote count is legally open to the public and political party representatives are permitted to observe throughout the day. In reality, only five observers are permitted in a polling station at any one time; given that most districts have more than 30 competing candidate lists, many representatives are likely to be refused entry. Even without accreditation, the civil society coalition is planning to move forward with a limited monitoring effort to demonstrate the value of independent civil society observation and build the capacity of its members for future elections.
In a positive move, MOI election authorities said that vote tabulation centers—where results will be compiled from individual polling stations—will be open to international observers. Access to the tabulation process has long been a key concern of political parties, which feel this stage is where irregularities have occurred in previous polls, and was the first recommendation of a recent pre-election assessment delegation. While allowing international observers access to the vote tabulation process is a significant step toward greater electoral transparency, access for Algerian party and civil society representatives is even more important.
Despite the government’s recent creation of a commission comprised of political party and independent candidate representatives, parties continue to be largely sidelined from election-related decision making. The MOI has largely ignored the commission’s recommendations, including its request that Algeria switch from the multiple ballot system to single ballots to dissuade fraud and vote-buying. But the commission itself has become the source of increasing drama and intrigue. Work stoppages, leadership disputes, and internal confusion have kept the commission in the headlines but impeded its efforts. Recently, several parties complained that procedural delays within the commission resulted in serious ballot flaws, where parties’ assigned numbers on the ballot do not correspond to their assigned number on designated campaign poster spaces. Such disorganization could lead to confusion among voters, particularly given the complete absence to date of any effort by election officials or parties to educate voters on polling procedures.
A pre-election assessment delegation organized by the National Democratic Institute visited Algeria from March 31 to April 5. Its report is available HERE. NDI’s long-term observation mission will remain in Algeria through the elections and release a final report based on its findings.
NDI is one of the core institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.