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How the empty ballot boxes echo Algeria’s hollow hope

May 4, 2017 at 8:00 am

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika casts his ballot in the legislative elections on May 10, 2012 [Magharebia / Flickr]

As Algerians take to the ballot box today to vote in the country’s legislative elections, campaigns boycotting the vote have received more attention in the last couple of days as politicians make last ditch attempts to urge people to vote.

The latest campaign of #mansotich (a play on words which essentially means “I will not vote”) has Algerians refusing to honour the demands of the government by going out in an election where the results are already guaranteed. The campaign calls out the Algerian government for not solving the acute housing shortage and improving health care in a country crippled by a financial crisis due to the fall in oil revenues and collapse in crude oil prices since 2014.

The decreasing budget is now threatening the population’s expectations of attaining social necessities through the ailing subsidy system and the lack of comprehensive socio-economic reforms that reflect the country’s move away from its reliance on hydrocarbons as a long-term economic model.

The theme of the elections this year is one of “stability and continuity”, but this has failed to convince Algerians to make their voices heard through a system viewed as a waste of time and resources and one that cannot remedy daily issues.

Read: 45,000 Algerian policemen mobilised for elections

The often amusing spectacle of observing election fever in the country is bolstered by the actions of the leading elite who contribute to the general perception of things being nothing more than a joke. “Wake your husbands up and tell them there’s no coffee, go vote!” and “if they don’t vote give them the stick” were comments made by the prime minister last week.

As shocking as they seem coming from a leading official such as Abdelmalek Sellal, the eruption in cheers, laughter and ululations at his words is an indication of how quickly serious issues such as domestic violence can be reduced to an inconsequential joke.

As part of the campaign to make Algeria’s voice heard, regular broadcasts have been commissioned on TVs, erecting giant posters with the words “make your voice heard!” as a reminder to those choosing to wilfully forget and imams solicited to encourage their congregations to make their vote count.

A total of 12,000 candidates from over 50 parties are standing for the 462 seats in the People’s National Assembly with a registered electorate of 23 million expected to vote. Placing their trust in parties who fail to make clear what they stand for is another reason why low voter-confidence today is as certain as the results.

Election climate

Officials have urged people to vote “massively” and tied their hopes in the general public happily obliging with that of maintaining Algeria’s “stability”.

Algeria sign post [file photo]

Forced to use a wheelchair since suffering a stroke in 2013, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s statement last week in which he stated that a strong vote would be essential to contribute to “the stability of the country” can be translated to mean that continuity is key for Algeria’s security.

The socio-economic climate of the last legislative elections in 2012 differs greatly to Algeria’s current situation when high oil revenues in 2011 allowed for an increase in wages and subsidies and the option to buy social peace as the region was engulfed by the Arab Spring.

Algeria’s answer in this years’ election to those angered by the weakened state of the economy is to simply “be patient” – in a country where half of the 40 million-strong population is under the age of 30 and one in three is unemployed, this answer is unlikely to sit well.

Their sentiment will be most felt at the ballot box were voter turnout has been barely able to surpass the 40 per cent mark; the 2007 elections bringing a dismal 35 per cent participation rate.

Algeria in history: How cancelling elections led to war

Today’s legislative elections surround the tepid economy and the uncontained social tensions awash with political ambiguity and false assurances. The emphasis on “stability” this year ties in with the uncertainty of Algeria once Bouteflika succeeds with the advent of a civil war by the scrabble to fill the power vacuum driving fears.

The ruling National Liberation Front’s manipulation of stability leaves Algerians able to recognise that stability and security will only exist as long as the status-quo is maintained. Whilst critics have spelt out their fears of Algeria’s demise in light of geo-politics and the vulnerability of the country to external and internal threats, a drastic change to the ruling system is very unlikely.

The influence of the political-military elite, successful in localising terror threats and using its counter-terrorism apparatus to reiterate the narrative of stability, is unlikely to further antagonise the country by hoping to reassure Algerians that the next government will be more consensual. Indeed, key figures such as the PM, the chief of staff, Ahmed Ouyahia and the Secretary-General Djamel Ould Abbes are all preparing for their own presidential bids in 2019 amidst rumours of internal divisions.

Algeria’s fragmented political scene

In 2012, the nationalist camp represented by the ruling party, FLN, and the National Rally for Democracy (RND) was able to secure over 300 seats in the NPA in a voter turnout of around 45 per cent. The election win came as no surprise and was owed to 2011’s social peace and support of groups tied with Algeria’s petrodollars and oil revenues.

The FLN, which has ruled Algeria since independence in 1962, is likely to keep its majority in parliament along with the allied RND.

A parade held during the 62nd anniversary of Algerian war of independence in Algiers, Algeria on November 1, 2016 [Bechir Ramzy/Anadolu]

A parade held during the 62nd anniversary of Algerian war of independence in Algiers, Algeria on November 1, 2016 [Bechir Ramzy/Anadolu]

The opposition is viewed as weak and fragmented with their call for boycotting the elections masking their lack of strategies in providing solutions to the government’s shortcomings. The call for boycott is also driven by the lack of transparency in the electoral process,(which was expected to have improved since the restructuring of the intelligence apparatus (the DRS)), where calls to release the national electoral register in a show of such transparency have been refused.

Though the opposition in Algeria is almost non-existent in influence, the main actors are fronted by the Islamists who currently hold 60 seats. They have failed to gain the same support since the Islamic Salvation Front in the 1990s who won the backing of the marginalised majority and would have won the 1992 elections had the army not stepped in and cancelled their course to success.

In 2012, the Islamist parties of the Movement of Society for Peace, Islamic Renaissance Movement and the Movement for National Reform hoped to replicate the gains of their peers in Egypt and Tunisia by forming a coalition to better their chances in the election through the Green Algeria Alliance. Instead, the parties suffered their worst electoral defeat and highlighted Algeria’s lack of appetite in returning to a state of violence that plunged the country into civil war in the 1990s by backing the opposition.

The rest shaping the opposition are mainly the secular Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), who boycotted the 2012 elections, the Front of Socialist Forces (FFS), who the RCD hopes to gain seats from, and the Algeria’s Workers’ Party, headed by Louisa Hanoune who has attempted to take the presidential seat since 1999.

Climate of uncertainty

2012’s legislative elections was largely viewed as the Algerian government’s success in derailing any descent into violence amid the protest movement of the Arab Spring by buying its way into social peace through its generous subsidy system and stable economy. 2017 is very different, (though not as crises-defined as it was in the 1980s/90s), and can no longer benefit from a regressive system that only seeks to widen the gap between the rich and poor.

The fall in oil-prices in 2014 has been the needed wakeup call that Algeria must diversify its economy and cannot economically depend on its oil and hydrocarbons in sustaining its future and the country’s growth in accommodating for a population with a 26 per cent birth rate.

Oil revenues in Algeria have fallen since 2014 from $60.3 billion to a recorded $27.5 billion in 2016

Though protests have been part and parcel of Algeria’s social fabric for decades, a new urgency has been instilled within the country since the introduction of the Finance Law 2017 where public expenditure has been slashed by 14 per cent in 2017 alone and where reforms mean an increase in prices, VAT and new import licences.

Algeria cannot be truly independent whilst it seeks French acceptance

The housing crisis has been aggravated by the introduction of these import measures resulting in construction projects being placed on hold indefinitely due to foreign companies not being paid or given the necessary equipment to continue in projects that would relieve Algeria’s housing shortage.

The welfare system has done little to aid social tensions fuelled by the irritation of Algerians looking for solutions to their problems and for promises to materialise. The demonstrations and riots that were recorded in the previously calm states in the south have since ignited to match the anger witnessed regularly in the north.

Not driven politically, the protests range from sit-ins outside public halls, hunger strikes at universities and rioting against public administrations and police stations. Choosing direct action as their language of communication with the government has proven more effective for their goals than using the conventional means of the ballot box. Their demands are not unrealistic: viewing the state as the caretaker of the country’s affairs, fairer distribution of its services and state resources, better opportunities in the work sector and adhering to promises of improved reforms are expectations that the government refuses to concede.

The axing of thousands of jobs has added to the woes of youth unemployment which has largely defined the post-independence generation. Attaining a diploma is no longer a guarantee of employment after university – over 32 per cent of graduates fail to find work after they leave which adds further strain when the education system is riddled with issues.

Dental students go on hunger strike in Algeria [DR]

Dental students go on hunger strike in Algeria [DR]

Lack of inclusion of the youth in the political sphere creates further distrust in political institutions and only strives to deepen the divide between the pre and post-independence generations who rarely see eye-to-eye.

The heroes of the war of independence no longer have their legitimacy blindly accepted in justifying their hold on power. They are not above criticism. The new generation sees nothing in them but incompetent figures masked by national historical gratitude. The ballot box is nothing but an extension of the disappointment Algerians feel. The only thing certain today is that continuity will emerge the winner and the people are mere spectators.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.