x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Algiers aims for stability with elections that could surprise

Parliamentary elections in Algeria this week are a sad, pale reflection of the Arab Spring

When the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia sparked the Arab protests, it sounded an alarm that neighbouring Algeria might be next. As the "Arab Spring" unrolled, many expected the government in Algiers to experience the same unrest that led to the departure of rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and ushered in constitutional change in Morocco.

In Algiers in January 2011, riot police arrested hundreds of protesters calling for President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to "clear off". He, of course, did not. The regime is reluctant to acknowledge the new geopolitical realities, and in fact the system has been doing what it can to prevent change.

The latest subterfuge is tomorrow's elections for the lower house of parliament, billed as part of a "reform package". Mr Bouteflika says these elections are a foundational act as important as the Algerian Revolution of 1954. Meanwhile, his prime minister, Ahmed Ouyahya, is warning Algerians against "Arab Spring contamination". The election-promotion jingle airing on state television claims that "Algeria is our spring".

To underscore the regime's intentions, TV news has highlighted, in its coverage of Libya and now Syria, the threats of Islamist terrorism, Nato intervention, carnage and the destruction of infrastructure.

Mr Bouteflika has so far licensed 23 new political parties and claimed that these elections herald "good governance and social justice".

The government has also opened the door to 500 international observers, from the Carter Center, the National Democratic Institute, the European Union and the Arab League, to ensure fairness.

More than 40 parties are competing for 462 seats. Even the Socialist Forces Front (FFS), Algeria's oldest secularist opposition party, which boycotted 2002 and 2007 parliamentary elections and the 2009 presidential election, is running.

But the main contest is likely to be between the pro-government National Liberation Front (FLN) and the National Rally for Democracy (RND) on one side, and the Green Algeria Alliance of three Islamist parties: the Movement of Society for Peace (MSP, formerly a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood), Ennahda and the El Islah (Reform) movement.

A key question is how well Islamist candidates will fare, considering that their counterparts have won in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Morocco. This is a thorny issue in Algeria, where the grassroots Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won the 1992 election, which was then annulled when the military stepped in to topple the president, rejected the ballot results and ended the nascent democratic process begun in 1988. This was intended to eradicate the "menace" of political Islam, but it plunged Algeria into a dirty civil war that claimed about 200,000 lives.

With the arrival of Mr Bouteflika in 1999, the regime's reconciliation plan - offering amnesty to the victimisers and muzzling the victims - put an end to the strife.

Since 1992, all elections have been rigged. Most Algerian voters argue that the real power lies with the military leaders and the regime's elite.

The validity of this ballot depends on the transparency of the vote, but also on the turnout. For Mr Bouteflika, these elections are a crucial phase in the life of the nation; the FLN and RND both warn that foreign intervention is a real possibility if the elections do not go well.

The other party leaders are making plenty of promises. The leader of the Islamist Front for Justice and Development (FJD), Abdallah Djaballah, takes it upon himself to "eradicate poverty in one year". This awkward statement has earned him only mockery as the man who would "eradicate poor people in one year".

It is an open secret that tomorrow's elections won't help resolve the country's malaise: pitiable living conditions for millions, high consumer prices and a lack of real political representation.

So far, Algeria's revenues, boosted by high oil and gas prices, have enabled the authorities to sidetrack people's resentment and secure their silence. But the jobless rate has reached 25 per cent among young people, making the social divide even wider. If this downwards spiral is not addressed, some in the population will resort to violence.

The regime fears that the turnout will be low because many Algerians feel disenfranchised by the ruling elite. Accordingly, the authorities are urging imams to encourage people to cast their votes. Farouk Ksentini, the mouthpiece of the state-run human rights watchdog, has even proposed to penalise those who don't turn out to vote.

It is evident, and unsurprising, that the regime is more interested in a plebiscite than in building a democratic nation. With this process, the system is buying time and trying to remain in power - a luxury that rulers in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen did not have.

To avert an extensive boycott, the system and the political parties that form the presidential coalition (including the FLN and the RND) have engaged in a form of blackmail. At their various rallies where well-remunerated audiences are brought from neighbouring villages, they continuously warn of the worst-case scenarios if Algerians do not vote in considerable numbers tomorrow.

They claim that foreign intervention, akin to the one in Libya, is imminent. But most Algerians remain indifferent to this smoke-and-mirrors claim.


Dr Abdelkader Cheref is an Algerian assistant professor of comparative literature and cultural studies at the University of Connecticut