On May 10, Algerians headed to polls in the first Parliamentary elections since the Arab Spring swept the region. Forty-four political parties were battling for the 462 Parliamentary seats, and, for the first time, over 500 foreign observers were deployed to monitor the polling–a major concession by the government in a country where the issue of sovereignty is particularly sensitive.
Even if these changes mark an encouraging trend—in this new Parliament, almost one third of the seats are occupied by women—they cannot conceal a general feeling of indifference and apathy, as Algerians regard them as devoid of significance. Despite the internationally positive reactions regarding the voting proceedings, the results were received with little enthusiasm within the country. One prominent opposition party, the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), had decided not to run in the election, and many of the results were contested by several political parties. A large segment of the population remains mistrustful of the government’s official figures.
What makes this election interesting is its contrasting character to regional developments. Though these elections were considered by foreign observers as more free and transparent than ever before, insiders saw in them a test for the current political establishment to measure and gauge its sustainability. The overwhelming success of the FLN (National Liberation Front) at the recent legislative elections gives little hope for concrete changes and thwarted the chances for a real transition to democracy. The results also confirmed that political Islam has not recovered in Algeria, and the experience of the civil war remains a stumbling block in the return of Islamist parties.
Unsurprisingly, the two government parties, the FLN and the RND (National Rally for Democracy) of Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia took the lion’s share of the vote. The FLN even scored their best results in thirty years, obtaining 220 out of 462 seats in the Parliament. Not so much a contest between political parties, the real challenge of these elections for the government was to convince Algerians to participate en masse, and the relatively high turn-out (43% of participation) compared to the last Parliamentary elections (which had 34% of participation) was seen by the regime as confirmation of its strategy of maintaining the status quo.
Algerians find it hard to believe anything is going to change, and still remain very suspicious of official figures. Despite the foreign observers’ satisfaction regarding the validity and the regularity of the voting proceedings, allegations of electoral fraud have been widespread, and several political parties denounced irregularities. A participative website set up to register these irregularities has identified almost 200 of them.
The uneven levels of participation across the country—only 20% to 25% of participation in the Kabylia region, for example—reveal high regional disparities and reflects a profound disconnect between the political leadership and the society in some parts of the country.
The real question going into this election was the extent to which Islamism had made its way back into Algeria. But in contrast to the neighboring countries, Islamism did not appeal to the voters. The Green Algeria Alliance, a coalition of three Islamist parties, suffered a heavy defeat in these elections, obtaining only 48 seats.
Prima facie, Algeria is an exception in the region: the ruling party was voted back in during allegedly free and fair elections; no major set of reforms has been undertaken by the government; and Islamism has failed to rise as a credible alternative.
Far from being the result of the FLN’s performance, this exceptionalism finds its explanation in the historical development of Islamism. Since Islamist groups took up arms against the civilian population after the military-backed government’s annulment of the 1991 parliamentary election in which the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) was poised to win, Algerians have remained reluctant to believe the Islamist discourse.
As opposed to Tunisia, Algerian Islamist parties are neither newcomers nor underground groups, and do not represent a credible opposition. A web of connections actually exists between the ruling establishment and members of Islamist parties. For instance, Abdelmadjid Benasra, head of the Front for Change, served as industry minister in Bouteflika’s first mandate, and a former leader of El-Islah, a party of the Green Alliance, was an advisor to the president. The number of hard-line Islamists among the abstainers, nostalgic for the outlawed FIS, has yet to be determined, but it would certainly enable us to better estimate the extent of Islamism in the country.
Even though Bouteflika’s call for a renewal of the aging political elite was well-received during a speech in Sétif on May 8, these legislative elections have by no means triggered such a change. The president is still expected to constitute a new government in the upcoming days, and it is the identity of the ministers he appoints that will partly determine the direction the country will take.
Narrimane Benakcha is a Fulbright scholar pursuing her MA in International Affairs at Columbia University in New York
Photo credit: UN Photo/Steve Tickner