Algeria: Abstention puts the election in jeopardy
The Algerian general election is set for 10th May. President Bouteflika, who rarely adresses the people, made the formal annoucement during a speech broadcast on national television on Thursday 9th February. Since, the government has used every opportunity to encourage Algerians to vote.
On 24th February, Abdelaziz Bouteflika even went as far as to compare the election on May 10th to the date of the start of the Algerian revolution : “People must take part in the election on 10th May. It is a historic event, as important as 1st November 1954.” Even the death of Ahmed Ben Bella, the first President of independent Algeria, on Wednesday 11th April 2012, was used to persuade people to vote by commentators on national television, an instrument of government propaganda. An indication of the extent to which the government fears high abstention. It is aware that concern about wide-scale electoral fraud leaves many Algerians sceptical.
Fear of fraud, calls to vote
Two commissions to oversee the elections have been set up to reassure people about potential fraud. One is composed of magistrates carefully chosen by the Head of State, the other is formed of representatives of the political parties taking part in the election and independent candidates. The first commission has the unfailing support of the official institutions, the second complains of constraints and contempt on the part of the government. Meanwhile, Algerian politicians are emerging from their torpor. Declarations, promises, surprising propositions, endless calls to vote or announcements of a boycott, Algerian politics is livening up, at least on the face of it. What do the voters think? For Algerians who have turned their backs on politics for over two decades, the election incites little enthusiasm. And yet the election comes at a time of ongoing social upheaval and the arrival of several new political parties. These new formations have just been approved as part of the political reforms initiated by Président Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Following the riots and protest movements on the Algerian streets in Spring 2011, the Algerian president announced openness and change.
Reforms which aren’t
Decided in April 2011, the reforms depend on the revision of organic laws and the passing of new laws. On the agenda: modification of the electoral system, creation of new political parties, reorganisation of associations and the media. Laws which are far from foremost in the minds of Algerians. But the process has started. The reforms, adopted by the Algerian parliament in Autumn 2011 and promulgated in January 2012, are supposed to encourage the emergence of new political forces. Over twenty new groupings have decided to play the game. But scepticism is the order of the day. Real democratic overture or political pretence to legitimise the election?
The Algerian political landscape, composed of around forty parties dominated by three main ideological tendencies, needs to get out of its current lethargy but no great shake-up is expected. The new groupings will no doubt merge into the mass and reinforce the stratification of the current political landscape. First, the government camps, represented by the FLN (National Liberation Front) and RND (National Rally for Democracy) rooted in the government administration. Next, the Islamist camp, divided into several rival parties. And to finish, the democratic parties, also divided and incapable of forming a proper opposition. All these political groupings suffer from a lack of credibility and mistrust on the part of the voters. The new law on parties, officially, is aimed at renewing the political field, at least on the face of it. But it isn’t an easy task given that behind the majority of the new parties created, of which four are Islamist, hide some old hands.
Abstention, a threat to the government
According to Algerian political analyst Rachid Grim, “The new parties will only clutter the Algerian political scene, and not significantly change the political field for the few seats they will gain and the associated advantages.” The new parties are not enthusing the population either. For the government, abstention is the real issue of this election. At the last election in 2007, the turnout was only 35%. And this year, it risks being even lower given the protests that have shaken Algeria for over a year.
An election in a time of social discontent
The process of reform started last January but not a week goes by without a road being closed to express dissatisfaction with the local authorities, or someone setting themselves on fire to demand a job, housing or more social justice. Without counting the strikes called by the unions of lawyers, doctors, teachers and other professions demanding improved working conditions, increased salaries and the review of the governance system,. In short, neither the recent pay rises implemented to buy social peace nor President Bouteflika’s political reforms have managed to convince the Algerians. According to a poll conducted recently by a team of Arab and American academics for research organisation Arab Barometer, 84.5% of Algerians are not interested in politics and 52% have no confidence in politics. The Algerian government is well aware of this and also that a high rate of abstention will discredit it on the international scene. To escape a spring that could prove fatal, the executive power is determined to give credibility to this election. Its last resort faced with a disbelieving and disillusioned population: sending text messages to all citizens to motivate them and remind them that “it is their duty to vote “. The three mobile phone operators in Algeria have been asked to send text messages to all their subscribers. Messages that will quickly be deleted to prevent in-boxes becoming jammed. Algerians might have preferred a call, but calls are expensive.
Fella Bouredji for ARTE Journal
Picture: CC flickr / mayanais
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