Amid the political rhetoric, the ramped up security and threats of a landslide victory from Islamist-based parties, one key factor is missing from the Algerian parliamentary elections: Algerian voter enthusiasm. Despite the so-called Green Algeria Alliance, Algeria’s main Islamist coalition, already claiming triumph, analysts and Algerians alike have long predicted a low voter turnout in a well-publicised election that will see forty-four political parties and more than 7,000 candidates vie for control of 462 seats. So will it be an Islamist sweep or will Algerians ignore religious-based parties and shudder at any reminder of a not-so-long-ago civil war? Although forecasting the election results is a tall order, it looks more likely that the sheer number of candidates will force already apathetic Algerians to become overwhelmed, leading them to simply tune the polls out all together.
An Islamist Sweep?
Due to a resurgence of previously banned religious parties, as well as increasing assertiveness in the wake of the Arab Spring, in the months and days leading up to the parliamentary elections on 10 May 2012, a number of Islamist-based groups have announced that they are confident they will sweep the polls. Their assertiveness grows as the country has recently seen an increase in the political clout of hard-line religious leaders, as numerous bars and pubs across the country have been shuttered, forcing alcohol to be sold on the black market, as a result of shopkeepers caving in to Islamist leaders demands. The latest religious-based leader to do so is Bouguerra Soltani, who announced on 07 May 2012, that he is certain his so-called Green Algeria Alliance, considered the “strongest Islamic bloc”, will claim “victory, whether by knockout or by points”. Soltani, however, failed to comment on how many seats in the 462-member National Assembly, that his coalition would win. Currently, Soltani’s own party, the Movement of Society for Peace (MSP), has fifty-one seats in parliament, and along with Ennahda and Elslah, his coalition has another eight.
Despite Soltani’s ambitious statements, secularists maintain that Islamist parties will not garner as many votes as he predicts. Although the region has seen a surge in religious parties as well as the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, a rising sentiment among many moderates is that Algeria is an “exception”. Additionally, the Green Algeria Alliance, no matter how well-organised, will still have to compete with forty-odd political parties, as well as a total of 7,646 candidates. Adding to the mix is the return of Ali Laskri’s more liberal-leaning Socialist Forces Front, which had boycotted the previous parliamentary elections in 2002 and 2007. With so many contenders to choose from, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s regime is confident that the votes will be spread thin, essentially preventing an Islamist coalition from taking power. Prime Minister Ouyahia, who had earlier been slated to be Bouteflika’s successor, noted this very issue on 25 April 2012, when he asked voters not to “waste” their votes by backing one of the forty-odd parties running in the election, and instead directed them to support the main ruling coalition groups, including his own National Rally for Democracy (RND), which has strong links to the current regime.
Additionally, the Green Algeria Alliance will also have to contend with Algerian voters themselves, who are still haunted by the aftermath of an earlier win by an Islamist branded party, in the early 1990’s the country underwent a deadly civil war which saw upwards of 200,000 citizens die. The conflict erupted when the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) Party gained considerable support among Algerians. Fearing the group’s victory, the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) Party immediately called off the elections, and arrested thousands of FIS Party members. The move eventually resulted in a military coup, and President Chadli Bendjedid was removed from office. Following this, Islamic militants began to spring up across the country and waged an all out war against the Algerian Government. The conflict ended only recently in 2002 with the defeat of the Islamic Salvation Army and Armed Islamic Group. With such a drawn out conflict which saw most Algerians lose at least one family member, many may be hesitant to vote for an Islamist-based organisation.
Going forward, although Algeria’s National Bureau of Statistics optimistically claimed that the country would see a 50% participation rate, the figures should be a lot lower than this, provided authorities do not manipulate the results. The last parliamentary elections held in 2007, saw a turnout rate of 35%, the lowest in the country’s history. The reason: Algerians, for the most part, do not care. They no longer trust the ruling party and believe the election will do nothing to address the lack of jobs for young people, particularly university graduates, and large-scale corruption. Perhaps best illustrating this apathy is Tarek Mameri. Mameri, aged twenty-three, reached international headlines for his recent arrest by “plain-clothes” Algerian police officers for his series of videos which he uploaded to YouTube, which called for Algerians to boycott the election, and perhaps most controversially of all, lambasted Bouteflika. Mameri’s arrest is significant in that it indicates the growing polarisation between two distinct generations of Algerians: the aging, hardened Algerian official who is set in his ways (Bouteflika, himself, is seventy-five), and the country’s younger tech-savvy population, of which about 75% are under the age of thirty. Interestingly, and perhaps in an effort to reach out to the social media generation, National Liberation Front (FLN) chief and personal confidant to Bouteflika, Abdelaziz Belkhadem, announced that he would be answering live questions on Facebook on 29 April 2012. However, as the FLN is in cahoots with the current regime, most Algerians are likely to ignore Belkhadem’s arguably shameless pandering. This pandering, and out-of-touch behaviour on behalf of the ruling elite has raised concerns of many international observers who have warned that the Algerian autocracy may be nearing its end. Abdelmadjid Menasra, a former minister and founder of the Islamic Front for Change (FC), a party that has not reportedly been approved by the Algerian Government, perhaps summed up these fears saying that if “we do not open the door to democratic change, we will open the door to anarchy”.