The expression “the People Have Chosen” clearly does not apply to Algeria’s legislative elections held last week. And judging by the winners, it’s going to be business as usual for the incoming rubber-stamping assembly.
In reporting the results of this subdued and unexciting political event, a seemingly angry Interior Minister, Daho Ould Kablia lashed out at the foreign press for under-estimating the importance of the Algerian election. On Friday, May 11, 2012, as the results were announced, he stated “no foreign party has the right to dictate its laws to Algeria.” Along the way, he reminded his audience that Algeria had “a liberation war and suffered from a brutal terrorism campaign.” Regardless of what foreigners believe, the Algerians themselves are not buying Mr. Ould Kablia’s product. This is evidenced in the results he released which hinted at a nation that does not believe in the regime’s political system. How do we know that? You judge for yourself.
Of the nearly 22 million eligible voters, the Minister’s own statistics showed a turnout of 42.9%, a number which cannot be vetted or challenged because there is no independent election commission. According to the head of an opposition party, given the history of inflating numbers, one could assume that the turnout may have been as low at 18%. Mr. Ould Kablia remarked that the figure is an improvement from the 2007 elections, which had a 36.51% turnout, another number that could not be verified. The Minister also managed to share some revealing statistics which showed that while the turnout within the country reached 44.38%, Algerian nationals living abroad only had a turnout of 14%. In Canada, the only about 8% of the Algerian community there showed up. The complete lack of interest from the expatriate voters is symptomatic of a number of factors, starting with the inability of the Algerian authorities to control this community as they do rural Algeria. The other factor may be that Algerians abroad are a difficult voting block to convince because they are seeing the political changes that are occurring in the Arab world while there is complete freeze of political life in their own country. This is in contrast to rural Algeria where the media and the message are controlled. And so absenteeism is a pure byproduct of a population that thinks its votes mean nothing and will not bring about change. To paraphrase the thoughts of an Algerian Professor in New York, “why bother?”
The laws of numbers tell us that the 43% voter turnout does not represent a majority, 57% does. This means the majority of Algerians did not see a reason to vote and their arguments make sense. In their eyes, the legislative elections as a means to select people’s representatives are meaningless. The Algerian Parliament is not the independent body that the people could count on to counter-balance other government entities. Big policy issues escape the National Assembly, whose members are generally paid handsomely to endorse and not challenge. Within the regime, which controls the Assembly, there are often conflicting ideologies that define policy at any given time. For example, one year, there is economic openness with one championed by one faction of the regime (as was the case of former oil minister Chekib Khelil). Another year, conservative ideology takes over and championed by the like of the current FLN chief and former Prime Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem. These senior Ministers tend to be the visible operatives of the regime and the Assembly is simply irrelevant or at best a toy to justify policies. And this is common knowledge among the Algerian voters.
Naturally, these views are generally held more in regions of high urban concentration and economic activity, as well as in regions where there is a permanent state of anti-government sentiment. In these elections, the turnout in the capital Algiers was reported by Ould Kablia at 30.95%, a number highly exaggerated as the youth of Algiers’, the middle classes, and the professionals simply abstained. In the Berber capital Tizi Ouzou, east of Algiers, the turnout was a mere 19.84%. In Bejaia, also a Kabyle city, only 25% of the eligible voters are said to have voted. In the Kabylie region, the disastrous racist policies of the central government are the cause of such popular backlash and the abandonment of political participation.
What do these turnout numbers really mean for the incoming assembly? The best way to assess the impact would be to borrow the thoughts of the head of the moderate Islamist MSP party. For Mr. Bouguerra Soltani, a 45% minimum floor is the minimum required if the assembly wants to feel an acceptable level of legitimacy as its primary task will be to amend the constitution. But at below 43%, the assembly is headed into a zone of turbulence. Borrowing again Bouguerra’s analysis, the elections were mired with a series of questionable events. Voter participation was weak – even in rural areas that are traditionally in favor of the voting action – and Bouguerra and observers in Algeria are concerned about the military vote, which has exclusively favored the ruling FLN and RND parties.
And so as the elections campaign went on, the regime and leading political parties in power went on the offensive to mobilize anyone and everyone they could convince. In an extreme case, there are allegations of military voters having only two options: One, voting for the FLN, and two, the ruling party RND of Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia. The outcome was a bit remarkable considering that the Islamist alliance between three parties was expected to take the lead, having been projected to take one third of the assembly. Instead, the old FLN party was back, controlling almost half of the assembly with 220 seats of the 462 contested seats, a boost from its position in the previous election. Its sister party RND grabbed 68 seats. These two parties now control over 62% of the Assembly, which means they will set the stage for Algeria’s next constitution. And with a cadre that has limited creative ideas, one wonders what they will bring to the table, other than a status quo.
Meanwhile, the newly formed coalition trio of Islamist parties called “Alliance de l’Algérie” emerged as the third winner and grabbed 48 seats, or just about 10.4%, instead of the 30% projected prior to the elections. The old FFS party (Front des Forces Socialistes) got 21 seats, followed by the Workers’ Party (Parti des Travailleurs) with 20 seats, then downgraded to 17. Others, in this highly fragmented assembly, include 19 seats for the independent candidates, the FNA with 19 seats, the Islamist party of the “Justice et le Développement” (PJD) with 7 seats, the Mouvement Populaire Algérien with 6 seats, “El-Fadjr El-Djadid” with 5 seats, the “Front du Changement” with 4 seats and a number of small formations. The RCD Berber party abstained.
Islamists Complain of Electoral Fraud:
While there is a certain sigh of relief among the moderate and middle classes that the ultra-conservative Islamists were blocked, their sympathizers and officials within their coalitions are infuriated by the results. Their alliance, called “L’Alliance de l’Algérie Verte” spoke of electoral fraud, highlighting the role of the military vote which “went massively to the FLN and RND,” according to Abderrezak Mokri, a member of the so-called Green coalition. A leading member of the MSP party himself, Mokri accused “administrations and national institutions” of massive fraud and falsifying the results. “The results do not project the realities in many Wilayas (regions) and that casts a serious doubt about the political reforms announced by the President.” In a press conference following the release of the results, Mokri read a statement announcing that “the President is the first and principal person responsible for what is happening, and that is perpetuating the fraud.”
Uninterested Population, a Chaotic Environment:
As Algerians absorbed the results of their “elections,” foreign observers asked why Algeria dodged the bullet of the Arab Spring. The high absenteeism and low turnout at elections are symptoms of a population that has no options, no choices, and no political ideas of how to fix the country’s problems. The regime is not only unable to come up with creative ideas, but it is extremely comfortable in the status quo, doing everything it can to freeze the political scene. The population is essentially taking a wait-and-see attitude because a brutal confrontation such as that of the 1990s is not an option. This is essentially as if there are two Algerias separated by an ocean of different realities. The first is the regime that pretends that the institutions are working perfectly which is what Interior Minister Ould Kablia, President Bouteflika, Prime Minister Ouyahia, and FLN chief Belkhadem want us to believe. Then there are the masses that live day-to-day, not believing anything coming from the “leadership” and observing, as passive spectators, the comedy that is the country’s political scene. And while the political comedy goes on, the business of running a nation faces turmoil.
A Nation in Crisis:
While a minority of Algerians went voting, the town of Saharidj, in the province of Bouira, east of the capital was rocked by riots and confrontations pitting the population against the police. Security forces used teargas, injuring dozens of the town’s already disgruntled youth who were displaying their anger against the political system by destroying voting sites.
The political backlash is mainly caused by a disconnect between the regime and the population on the economic front. For instance, authorities are faced with issues of resource allocation in ways not seen anywhere else. While the country continues to amass a fortune from the export of oil and gas, the nation lacks basic infrastructure. As voting went on, citizens of the Ath Yevrahim municipality and in Bouira forced city hall to shut down in protest against water shortages.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of workers in the university system are planning to stage work stoppage to demand improvements in their work conditions and wages. Medical Doctors from 30 provinces (Wilayas) are currently staging a sit-in in front of the health ministry demanding the resignation of the minister. The Doctors continue to complain about a disastrous environment for both patients and medical staffs. Court clerks have been also staging their protests, and a few of them recently went on a hunger strike. This socio-economic depression is widespread phenomena, in a nation where authorities seem to have vanished instead of facing their responsibilities. And with the FLN in parliament and no change in governance, the situation is not likely to improve, and that could spell troubles in the mid term.