Algerian voters head to the polls for tomorrow’s parliamentary elections with little enthusiasm or expectation of change even though they are likely to be “the freest ever,” reports suggest:
But the legacy of the 1991 elections nearly won by Islamists before a military coup ended the voting hangs heavy: Memories still fester of how Islamist candidates were thrown into prison and the nation plunged into more than a decade of civil war. Once again, Islamists will square off against pro-government parties. But after decades of repression and rigged contests, turnout may not surpass the anemic 35 percent seen in the last elections in 2007.
The Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings that engulfed the region have largely bypassed Algeria, the African continent’s largest country and an OPEC member rich from its natural gas fields. But while the nation’s wealth has helped stave off unrest, faith in the political process appears broken.
The ruling Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN), has effectively monopolized power for over fifty years, and it is unlikely to allow its closest challengers – the country’s Islamist parties – to make serious gains.
It remains illegal to exploit religion for political purposes and the National Legislative Election Monitoring Committee has warned Islamist groups not to invoke Islamic themes in election campaigns. The proscription evidently enjoys a degree of public support:
“We paid a very high price in the 1990s,” said Adam Houdri, a medical student. “The extreme religious views put forward by the Islamic Salvation Front plunged the country into a bloodbath. We cannot live through that nightmare again.”
Karima Soltani, a public sector worker, said Algeria is a Muslim country, so the use of religious messages to win over the electorate will achieve nothing. “The people want concrete proposals resulting in greater spending power and the improvement of their daily lives.”
But some observers believe that official corruption “which many regard as an intrinsic part of the regime, will drive many Algerians to vote for the Green Alliance, formed last year as a coalition of three former Islamist parties – the Movement of Society for Peace, the Islamic Renaissance Movement and the Movement for National Reform:
The Green Alliance’s ideology is similar to that of the Islamist political parties in Tunisia, Morocco and Turkey. It has well-organized local supporters and good candidates who have been actively campaigning and, despite bitter memories of the Islamist insurgency in the 1990s, Algerian experts believe the Islamists will gain many seats.
Secular parties are also contesting the election in the hope that it proves a catalyst for gradual but sustained reform.
Mustapha Bouchachi, a former chairman of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights, who now heads the Socialist Forces Front (FFS) list in Algiers, says his party “wants a peaceful change; violence does not allow us to build a democracy.”.
The elections are designed to legitimize an unpopular government and pre-empt demands for genuine reform, says observers.
“This election is because of the geopolitical situation and the Arab Spring,” said Kadi Ihsan, publisher of Emergente Maghreb, a business news website. “They [the ruling FLN] don’t have a real program for change. But they knew something must happen in Algeria – something that looks like change.”
The regime “has tried to exploit the momentum of the Arab Spring by launching a campaign to unclench voter apathy by coining an official slogan for the election on state television: ‘Algeria is our change’,” notes INEGMA analyst Emily Boulter. To no avail.
“Even with the entry of new political parties, such as the Front of Socialist Forces, which has boycotted elections for fifteen years, and numerous promises of reform by the country’s leaders, many Algerians are unconvinced that with the reforms,” she writes.
The regime’s strategy could backfire if large numbers of voters boycott the poll.
“Boycotting is the only possibility that remains for the Algerians to express themselves without risk,” sociologist Nasser Djabi said. “It is a form of protest. It’s saying ‘I don’t care, I want nothing to do with politics, I don’t like these parties, parliament is useless.’”
A low turnout will be awkward for the authorities, reports suggest, still dominated by the people who helped win independence from France 50 years ago. They want to shed their fusty, authoritarian image, and to do that they need popular legitimacy. The election is likely to be the fairest and most transparent in two decades. More parties than ever before have been allowed to compete, and for the first time the European Union has been invited to monitor the vote. The problem for the authorities is that many Algerians believe elections change nothing. Real power, they say, lies with an informal network which is commonly known by the French term “le pouvoir,” or “the power,” and has its roots in the security forces. Officials deny this and say the country is run by democratically-elected officials.
‘The FLN is clearly trying to demonstrate that Algeria is on a new path… but I think it is taking a big chance because turnout could be very low,” said John Entelis, editor-in-chief of the Journal of North African Studies:
Only 35% of Algeria’s electorate cast a ballot in 2007 and many observers argue a new record low or even a similar figure would be a setback for the government. [FLN head Abdelaziz] Belkhadem himself said turnout of 45% would be satisfactory. Protests broke out in January 2011 and there have been more self-immolations in Algeria than in Tunisia but, while discontent has continued to simmer, an Arab Spring-style movement never caught on.
“The regime has been very clever in allowing a lot of steam to be blown off,” said Entelis, an Algeria expert who teaches political science at Fordham University in the United States. “The government doesn’t need anybody in the world,” he said, in reference to the huge cash reserves generated by Algeria’s oil and gas industry. “When they need to turn on the spigot, they can and they did.”
Algeria, a leading exporter of oil and natural gas, reported having about $181bn in hard currency at the end of 2011. Critics say the government has used its reserves to buy social peace by raising public sector salaries, launching loan programs and reversing plans to cut subsidies.
Unlike in other Arab countries, Algeria’s domestic security forces are also better trained to deal with protests. On April 29, young men in the north-eastern town of Jijel rioted over the self-immolation of a street vendor harassed by police, in an incident similar to the one that sparked Tunisia’s revolution. But instead of firing on protesters, large numbers of police quelled the unrest with teargas.
The regime’s subtle closure of political space and suffocation of dissent has contributed to public apathy, say democracy advocates.
“I do not expect a high turnout,” rights activist Noureddine Benissad, told Reuters on Tuesday. “Ordinary Algerians have lost interest in the election.”
Despite lifting the state of emergency in February, the authorities are using familiar repressive tactics against its critics, said Benissad, head of the independent Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights, citing the arbitrary arrests of activists, harassment of striking workers, censorship of opposition media and the absence of free debate.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of assembly and association recently criticized the crackdown on dissent and urged the authorities to use the elections to demonstrate that new NGO regulations meet international standards.
“While the Arab Spring paved the way for a more inclusive participation of civil society, it is highly regrettable that Algeria has now taken a step backwards in relation to freedom of association by placing more rigorous limits on the scope of associations’ activities or their access to funding,” said Maina Kiai (left).
“The legislative elections …must address civil society’s legitimate demands and uphold freedom of association,” he stressed, voicing special particular concern about provisions of the associations Law 12-06 adopted in December 2011, which imposes new controls and restrictions on the establishment of associations and access to foreign funding.
During the election campaign, opposition parties enjoyed near-equal access to state media for the first time although the Algerian League for Defense of Human Rights said that state outlets still favored the ruling parties and censored calls for an election boycott.
The poll will be monitored by a significant number of foreign observers, including delegations from the Carter Center, the National Democratic Institute, the European Union, the Arab League and the African Union. Parties boycotting the election claim that foreign observers will simply give legitimacy to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s regime, but rights activists welcomed their presence.
“The Western democracies will no longer allow the falsification of the will of a people, so there is a glimmer of hope that these elections will not be rigged,” said Mustefa Bouchachi, a human rights lawyer.
But contrary to the President’s announcement that the poll signifies “political reform” and “improving the democratic process”, the regime has used a spate of new laws “to further restrict civil society and the scope for political action,” says a coalition of NGOs.
The election campaign has witnessed the arbitrary arrest of peaceful protesters, repression of legitimate assemblies and other measures demonstrating “a significant regression in matters of fundamental freedoms,” according to a joint report published by the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN), the Collectif des Familles Disparues en Algérie (Collective of the Families of Disappeared People in Algeria, CFDA), the Ligue Algérienne pour la Défense des Droits de l’Homme (Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights, LADDH) and the Syndicat National du Personnel Autonome de l’Administration Publique (National Autonomous Staff Union of the Public Administration, SNAPAP)
“Similarly, trade union activists face threats, contempt and retaliation because of their union activities,” the report states:
They are seriously impeded in practicing their right to demonstrate and rally, especially in this election period, like was the case recently for the national federation of justice and teachers, but also the National Workers’ Committee on precarious and pre-employment and the National Committee for defending the rights of the Algerian unemployed, affiliated to the SNAPAP, that claim their right to a decent work. On April 18, Abdelkader Kharba, a member of the National Committee for defending the rights of unemployed and the LADDH, was arrested while filming a demonstration organized by the National Federation of the justice sector in front of the Court of Sidi Mohamed in Algiers.
The suppression of independent trade unionists has a particular political significance since, as the Washington-based Solidarity Center notes, ”organized labor has historically been at the forefront of political change, economic development, and social inclusion in Algeria.”
The Collectif des Familles Disparues en Algérie (Collective of the Families of Disappeared People in Algeria, CFDA), the Ligue Algérienne pour la Défense des Droits de l’Homme (Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights, LADDH), the National Democratic Institute and the Solidarity Center are supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.
Since 2005, the Solidarity Center has worked with the 1.3 million-member General Union of Algerian Workers (UGTA) through important partnerships with the National Institute of Trade Union Education and Research (INERS), the National Commission of Working Women (CNFT), and the National Youth Commission, which all play key roles in education, training and recruitment of union members throughout the vast country. The Solidarity Center also partners with national federations and workers in the strategic industries of oil and transportation, who are committed to giving voice to workers. In addition, the Solidarity Center works with several of the countries key autonomous unions, through the coordinating committee of autonomous civil service unions (Intersyndicale Autonome de la Fonction Publique – IAFP) including the 300,000 member strong National Autonomous Union of Public Administration Workers (Snapap). The twenty-plus autonomous unions operating in Algeria today represent over 600,000 workers in health, education, local and national government. Despite the fact that autonomous unions are currently excluded by the state from collective bargaining and social dialogue, they continue to mount a vigorous defense of worker rights.