Algeria vote puts status quo to Arab Spring test
Algeria readied Wednesday for its first election since the Arab Spring swept the region, with the historical ruling party, its moderate Islamist allies and the boycott camp all hoping to claim victory.
Social discontent and deadly riots rattled Algeria in January 2011 when revolutions were sweeping the region, but President Abdelaziz Bouteflika snuffed out the protest movement with a sprinkling of political reforms and pay rises.
Thursday’s poll will see 44 parties — 21 of them newly created — battle for seats in an enlarged parliament of 462 lawmakers, in what Bouteflika has hailed as “the dawn of a new era”.
But absention could also star as ever deeper voter disaffection ahead of an election that failed to produce new faces could prompt a huge chunk of the 21-million electorate to shun polling stations.
“I am talking to the youth, who need to take over because my generation has served its time,” Bouteflika said on Tuesday during a World War II commemoration in the western city of Setif.
Bouteflika’s National Liberation Front (FLN), once the only party, has been steadily losing ground since pluralism was introduced in 1989 and while it could yet win the most votes, it is expected to seek alliances to govern.
“I don’t think any party can approach a majority alone… The seats will be scattered between the parties,” Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia said last month.
The FLN, which has 136 seats in the outgoing assembly, currently sits in a coalition with the National Rally for Democracy of Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia and the Movement of Society for Peace, the main legal Islamist party.
The MSP hopes it can cash in on the so-called “Green wave” that swept Islamists to the helm in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt in the wake of the Arab Spring revolts.
But observers argue that the Arab Spring scenario of former opposition Islamist parties rising to power cannot be replicated in Algeria for several reasons.
One is that the Islamists are already in power: the MSP was part of a presidential alliance until February but kept its four government posts.
Another is that many Algerians believe the country had its own Arab Spring when the one-party system ended and Islamists won the first round of the ensuing 1991 election.
The army interrupted the vote, sparking a brutal decade-long civil war that left around 200,000 people dead and scars that are still raw.
Islamist parties have struggled to draw crowds during the campaign, as have other movements, and the threat of an even lower turnout than the 35 percent achieved in 2007 looms large.
The campaign has focused on unemployment, which officially stands at 10 percent but is believed to be almost twice as high, housing issues and the soaring cost of living.
Algeria’s youth, which accounts for close to three quarters of the 37 million inhabitants, looks set to abstain en masse amid fears over the vote’s credibility and deep distrust of the political class.
In messages exchanged on Facebook, some young Algerians were wishing one another a “happy no-vote day” and making plans for an extended weekend at the beach.
The hugely popular rapper Lotfi, who was once jailed for a song on the regime called “La Camorra”, issued a recorded message on Youtube explaining why he refused “to take part in his country’s ruin” and vote.
Algeria has witnessed more self-immolations than Tunisia since 2011 and people cannot understand that a state with foreign exchange reserves of $182 billion does not do more to improve their lives.
Algeria’s biggest source of income by far is oil and gas. It supplies around a quarter of the European Union’s natural gas needs.
The regime has tried to assuage fears of fraud by inviting some 500 foreign election observers — including from the EU — but Algeria is Africa’s largest largest country, four times the size of France, and few voters seem convinced.
The observers have repeatedly asked for the national voters roll, which some candidates say inflated suspiciously since the previous polls, but an Algerian diplomat argued that divulging such a “confidential” document would be illegal.
The FLN says it is confident it will remain in business, with Bouteflika keen to burnish his legacy and complete large projects such as the construction of the world’s third largest mosque.
The party itself is under unprecedented strain however, with rebels seeking to oust the secretary general and sights firmly on the 2014 presidential election, after which Bouteflika, now 75, is expected to step down.