Algeria vote puts status quo to Arab Spring test

Agence France-Presse
Algeria holds legislative polls on Thursday, May 10, that will test both the regime's response to the Arab Spring and the Islamists' ability to emulate the electoral gains of their counterparts in the region

ALGIERS, Algeria – Algeria holds legislative polls on Thursday, May 10, that will test both the regime’s response to the Arab Spring and the Islamists’ ability to emulate the electoral gains of their counterparts in the region.

Social discontent and deadly riots had begun to rattle Algeria a year ago when revolutions were sweeping the region, but President Abdelaziz Bouteflika responded with a sprinkling of political reforms and pay rises.

The May 10 polls will see 44 parties — 21 of them newly created — scrap for seats in an enlarged parliament of 462 lawmakers, in what Bouteflika has hailed as “the dawn of a new era”.

The former single party, Bouteflika’s National Liberation Front (FLN), 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 country’s 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.

“Our alliance will be the top political force in the next national popular assembly,” said Kamel Mida, a spokesman for Green Algeria, which includes the MSP and two of six other Islamist parties contesting the vote.

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 of them is that the Islamists are already in power: the MSP was part of a presidential alliance until February but kept its four government posts.

The other is that many Algerians argue that the country already had its Arab Spring when Islamists won the first round of the 1991 election following the end of the one-party system.

The army interrupted the vote and launched a crackdown, sparking a brutal civil war that left around 200,000 people dead and scars that are still raw ten years after the end of the conflict.

“The Algerian people has learned the lessons from the Islamist episode and wants to avoid a repeat of this national tragedy at all costs,” said Louisa Hanoune, secretary general of the opposition Workers Party.

Islamist parties have struggled to draw crowds during the campaign, as have other movements and the threat of a turnout similar to the record low of 35 percent reached in 2007 looms large.

The campaign, which wraps up Sunday, 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.

The country’s youth, which accounts for close to three quarters of the 37 million inhabitants, looks set to abstain en masse Thursday, amid fears over the vote’s credibility and deep distrust of the political class.

“There’s no reason for us to remain in this country, so why vote,” said Hamid, a young man from Annaba, an eastern city from which many illegal migrants set off on the perilous crossing to Sardinia.

Algeria has witnessed more self-immolations than Tunisia since 2011 and people cannot understand that a state with huge foreign exchange reserves — $182 billion at the end of 2011 — cannot 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 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 in Algiers.

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 widely expected to step down.

Besides the three governing parties, the main contenders include Algeria’s oldest opposition party, veteran Hocine Ait Ahmed’s Socialist Forces Front, which ended a 15-year election boycott and several Islamist groups.

Among the myriad other new parties, many of them are empty shells hosting dissident FLN candidates who are expected to return to the fold after the vote. – Agence France-Presse