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Algeria parliament poll looms, but voters busy watching France

Ryad Kramdi, AFP | Algerians look at election posters in the Algerian capital of Algiers on May 4, 2017

Algeria is holding legislative elections on May 4, but voters are far more curious about France’s presidential race. Algerians worry that a victory for far-right candidate Marine Le Pen could be disastrous for family members living abroad.

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Both Algeria and France will hold election this week. Voters in the oil-rich North African country are being called on to pick a new parliament, but they are far more concerned about who will be the next leader in the Elysée presidential palace.

“Algerians are avid consumers of social media videos and catch-phrases from the French campaigns,” Adlène Meddi, a journalist with the independent Algerian daily El Watan, admitted. Last week’s alliance between Le Pen and former rival Nicolas Dupont-Aignan became the subject of agitated debate across the country, especially given the nationalist and protectionist bent of the coalition.

“There isn’t a single family in Algeria that doesn’t have a close or distant relative living in France,” Meddi explained. "Naturally, we are all worried about what will happen to the Algerian community over there.”

“A Le Pen victory would be a catastrophic scenario for many, because she has promised to take away dual citizenship… people here feel France is becoming a country that increasingly rejects foreign people and cultures,” he added.

Algeria became a French colony in 1830 after three centuries of Ottoman domination. Independence came in July 1962 after a bloody independence war which lasted nearly eight years. The breakup and post-colonial history have often been bitter, but more than six decades later many families have kept a foot in both countries.

A friend to Algeria

Between the two candidates locked in France’s presidential run-off, centrist Emmanuel Macron is the runaway favourite among Algerians. Many were pleased to hear the young politician declare in February that France’s colonisation of Africa amounted to a “crime against humanity”. More recently Macron earned an endorsement from Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra, who praised him as a "friend to Algeria".

Rachid Grim, a political analyst, said France’s current race is being followed even closer than usual in Algeria. The last race in 2012 piqued people’s interests, but “there were fewer risks for Algerians then”, Grim said.

According to the expert, far-left Jean Luc-Mélenchon proved to be particularly popular among Algerians during the first round of the French election. Mélechon rallied an impressive 19.6 percent support, but it was not enough to get him into the run-off. “We are a people who love good speeches, and [Mélenchon] is a true orator,” he explained.

Opinion polls show Macron is on pace to win the runoff, garnering about 60 percent of votes to Le Pen’s 40 percent support. However, many of Mélenchon’s supporters have said they are unwilling to cast a ballot for Macron. A recent survey revealed only 34.8 percent are ready to vote for the pro-market candidate, with the remaining 65.2 percent saying they will either abstain or slip a black envelope in the ballot box on Sunday.

Low voter turnout

Besides some of the more colourful personalities in the French election, Algerians are also drawn to the country’s vibrant political alternatives. “Young people dream about living in democracies like France and the United States. They like observing how elections unfold in real democracies, when there is an actual political debate,” said Meddi.

He and Grim agreed that many Algerians have lost faith in leaders and elections in general. “French people might be increasingly disenchanted with their election options, but it’s in no way as bad as Algeria,” said Grim.

Despite a 2012 law that requires at least 30 percent of parliamentary candidates to be women, and the emergence of small parties led by young people and focused on local issues, only a minority of Algerians will bother casting a ballot in parliamentary vote.

"Voter turnout in elections is sort of a state secret in Algeria, especially when it comes to legislative elections. Official figures for the election in 2012 show 48 percent of registered voters participated. But from our reporting at polling stations, we know the figure was closer to 25 percent. This year it will probably be even lower,” Meddi lamented.

Apathy or boycott?

Grim says Algerian politicians’ complete lack of credibility is the main reason behind voter apathy. “The prime minister [Abdelmalek Sellal] is campaigning, even though he’s not supposed to. But still, he’s not going to get more people to vote. No one believes in politics anymore,” he said.

The National Liberation Front has been the sole ruling party since Algeria’s independence in 1962. Despite old age and a stroke that has left him largely incapacitated, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has been in power since 1999. In 2009 he won his third straight term as president, even though he was scarcely seen on the campaign trail.

In a bid to raise awareness about the lack of political options, two parties –Jil Jadid (New Generation) and Talaie El-Houriyat (Vanguard of Liberties) – have called on voters to boycott the election. That sparked an angry reaction from PM Sellal, who said those who wanted to throw their right to vote in the trash bin were welcome to do so, but should not push other Algerians toward “doubt and despair”.

The political analyst Grim doubts the boycott push can have a positive effect. "Whatever the case, boycott votes will be counted the same as abstentions,” he regretted.

In an attempt to lure voters back to polling stations on Election Day, the government has rolled out a large-scale campaign that includes street billboards and television ads. "Voter turnout has become an obsession with the Algerian government this year," Meddi said. "It’s a way of recreating normality by a government that, by imposing a sick and impotent president, has surpassed all the limits.”

This article was translated from its original in French

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