On 4 May, around 23 million Algerians will vote for 462 members of the National Peoples’ Assembly, the lower chamber of parliament. Around 11,000 candidates from 57 political parties are standing for election.
To encourage and reassure the opposition to take part in elections, the Algerian authorities amended the Constitution in February 2016. The changes included the establishment of an independent body to supervise and guarantee a transparent electoral process. However, most Algerians still believe that election results are decided behind closed doors in favour of the two parties supporting President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who himself nominated the members of the independent body which is to supervise the elections.
Algerians also mistrust elections due to the crackdown on the most popular political party –the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) — and the restrictions imposed on it in order to guarantee that no real competitor to the ruling elite enters parliament. The FIS arose out of the October 1988 popular uprising which led to Constitutional amendments.
The government recognised the new party in September 1989. The following year, the FIS achieved an overwhelming majority in the municipal elections before, on 26 December 1991 it won a similar landslide victory in the first round of the parliamentary elections. The ruling authorities immediately cancelled the elections and the results, and banned the FIS in early 1992, in a move approved by Western democracies.
As part of the Algerian authorities’ efforts to keep the Islamists out of the political arena, they arrested more than 20,000 citizens with Islamic backgrounds; most were officials, members and supporters of the FIS. They were isolated in massive prisons in the desert for years, with some estimates of the number of people arrested going up to 50,000.
Following the crackdown on the Islamists, militias supposedly allied to them started to attack the Algerian police and army, as well as civilians. Many observers believe that most of these brutal militias were supported directly or indirectly by the authorities. One report said that Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International blamed the Algerian army for many massacres carried out during that time because it turned a blind eye to the militias when they killed civilians suspiciously close to their bases. It was fairly obvious to independent observers that soldiers were donning disguises and killing the nearest innocent people before heading back to the relative safety of their barracks.
The wave of violence ended when a National Reconciliation process proposed by Bouteflika granted amnesty to hundreds of “militants” who agreed to lay down their arms. During what has been known as the Black Decade, more than 200,000 Algerians were killed. The Islamists were released from prison, but were still banned from political activities; they could not form or join any political parties or stand for election.
Despite several amendments that introduced more freedoms to Algerian political life, the Constitution in 2011 banned the FIS, its members and its leaders from taking part in politics. Nevertheless, many FIS leaders encouraged participation in the 2014 presidential elections, but criticised the result when the paralysed Bouteflika won a fourth term in office.
On 18 December last year, the now octogenarian president issued a secret decree imposing house arrest on the deputy leader of the FIS, Ali Belhaj, and even prevented him from performing his prayers in the mosque near his house in Algiers.
Nevertheless, at least six Islamist parties are now campaigning for next month’s parliamentary elections. They are running as two alliances. In the absence of the FIS they are expected to become the second largest bloc in parliament, leaving the traditional pro-Bouteflika parties to remain in power. This is arguably why Algerian officials are expecting a low voter turnout.
According to Lakhdar Bin Khalaf, the leader of one Islamist party, the Algerian authorities will impose more restrictions on freedom and the media. This will happen, he believes, despite the fact that the Constitution “includes brilliant articles in favour of the opposition and its role.” He has concerns about how just 410 members of the election supervisory body are expected to watch over more than 60,000 polling stations.
Another opposition politician, Younis Sharqi of the Central Committee of the Freedom Pioneers Party, thinks that the parliament will be useless as it has already conceded its power to the executive authority. “The parliament will have no power to hold any official accountability for any misconduct,” he told Aljazeera.net.
As far as the Director of the Regional Office of the International Organisation for Human Rights and Public Freedoms Abdul-Salam Aleeli is concerned, Algerians mistrust the electoral process because of the use of political money by members of the ruling parties. This was reiterated to Aljazeera.net by former Algerian Prime Minister Ahmed Benbitour, who pointed out that the parliament has no power. “Since the creation of the new parliament in the middle of the 1990s, it has never approved any law proposed by its members,” he explained. “I hope that the Islamists win and become a major power so that the ruling system will be operated in a way that serves the nation.”
As the election approaches, it is clear that such fears and criticism are well-founded. Is there any wonder, therefore, that the people of Algeria mistrust the political system?