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Algeria votes amid fears of widespread abstention

Text by Jean-Baptiste Marot

Latest update : 2012-05-10

Algerians are voting in the first parliamentary elections since last year's revolutions in neighbouring countries shook the Arab world to its core. The stakes are high amid fears of a low voter turnout and the prospect of Islamist gains.

Algeria went to the polls Thursday in parliamentary elections that threaten to be undermined by a high abstention rate fueled by rampant voter disaffection.

The government is trying everything to thwart an embarrassing rejection of the country’s first polls since mass dissent spilled over from the Arab Spring revolution in neighbouring Tunisia.

The message is everywhere: “It doesn’t matter who you vote for, just get out and vote.” It is repeated on television, in newspapers and magazines, and even by text messages, bombarding the electorate of some 21 million with an appeal to participate.

On Tuesday, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, whose National Liberation Front (FLN) was the only political party in Algeria until pluralism was introduced in 1989, told the nation he was "talking to the youth, who need to take over because my generation has served its time."

The Algerian authorities have been working hard to avoid a repetition of the last year’s cataclysmic events in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.

And Bouteflika, in power since 1999, is keen to have elections that will legitimise reforms enacted by his government over the last year to stop the spread of the Arab Spring.

These include allowing the creation of new political parties and greater press freedoms, as well as an end to emergency rule, in place since the end of a bitter 10-year civil war in 2001.

Bouteflika will also be hoping that public approval of those reforms will ensure another mandate when presidential elections take place in two years’ time.

He is currently serving his third term, following a controversial 2008 amendment to the constitution which lifted the two-term limit.

Tangible apathy

Algeria has suffered chronic voter apathy for the last two decades, and the FLN faces an uphill struggle reaching its goal of 45 percent participation in Thursday’s vote.

Achieving this seems unlikely, according to political observers who predict that the turnout will be even lower than in 2007, when 64 percent of the electorate stayed away from the polls.

In the streets of the capital, Algiers, the apathy is tangible. It is a story that dominates newspaper headlines, and locals talk quite willingly about their intention to stay away from the polls.

People seem far more interested in the French presidential election that saw outgoing French President Nicolas Sarkozy defeated by François Hollande on May 6.

Faical, a 26-year-old business school graduate, told FRANCE 24 he would not vote.

“Absolutely nothing is going to change,” he said while sipping tea and smoking a cigarette. “Some people will vote because they could face being sacked if they don’t, but being unemployed I have no such problems.”

“Let’s talk about François Hollande instead,” added the young man whose ambition is to immigrate to Canada.

Faical is not alone in feeling that his government is stale, corrupt and incapable of tackling the country’s soaring unemployment, officially at 10 percent, but in reality twice that amount. Algerians don’t see how the election is going to change anything, despite the promises made by the government that the vote would be transparent.

Islamists on a roll

Algeria’s seven Islamist parties are more confident and hope to ride the wave of success for the Muslim Brotherhood in Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt in the last 12 months.

“Islamist voters will participate,” said Kamel Mida, spokesman for the Movement of Society for Peace (MSP), the Algerian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“Throughout this campaign they have been mobilised. Our opponents have struggled to fill their meetings and they will suffer from the defection of their voters when the results come through.”

The MSP and two other Islamist groups make up Algeria’s “Green Alliance” (green being the colour of Islam). According to Mida, they are expecting to get 120 seats in the country’s 462-seat national assembly.

Not everyone shares the Islamists’ confidence.

“Algeria lived just such a scenario in 1991 and history will not repeat itself,” said the country’s former Prime Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem, referring to the 1991 election that was cancelled after the first round of voting due to fears of Islamist domination in parliament.

The cancellation was the catalyst of the country’s civil war that cost an estimated 200,000 lives.

Rachid Grim, an Algerian political scientist and writer, told FRANCE 24 that there was little chance that any success of Islamist parties in Thursday’s vote would be a cause for concern.

“The opening of the political system in Algeria has profoundly split the Islamist bloc,” he said. “And the system of proportional representation here makes it highly unlikely that any one party will achieve an outright majority.”

Grim predicted that the FLN and RND (National Rally for Democracy) ruling coalition would continue.

“And in any case the MSP has already been in power. Even though it split from the ruling coalition last year, it still has four ministers in government.”

Date created : 2012-05-10


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