Algerian elections bring no change

Amira Howeidy , Tuesday 15 Jun 2021

Algerian voters snubbed the country’s legislative elections this week, deepening its legitimacy crisis, writes Amira Howeidy

Algerian elections bring no change
A man casts his ballot at a polling station in the neighbourhood of Bab Al-Oued in Algiers (photo: AFP)

Algeria held its third round of voting in less than two years this week, bringing about little or no change to the political crisis that brought down president Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April 2019.

As Al-Ahram Weekly went to press, the preliminary results of the legislative elections showed the return of the same power dynamics in the 407-seat National People’s Assembly, despite the participation of 800 independents, most of whom have affiliations with the traditional parties.

Abdelrazzak Makri, leader of the moderate Islamist Movement for the Society of Peace (MPS), claimed an early victory on Sunday and warned against attempts to rig the vote. But few believe there was any need to alter the results of an election that was heavily boycotted by the Hirak popular protest movement and registered voters.

Some have claimed that the rigging was likely limited to the voter turnout figure, which had earlier been seen as too low.

When the polls closed on Saturday, the country’s Independent Election Commission said the voter turnout had been less than 14.5 per cent, a record low in the history of Algerian elections. The figure was later changed to 30.2 per cent in an official statement.

Algerian President Abdelmajid Tebboune dissolved the 2017 parliament earlier this year and called for early elections after he signed constitutional changes into law in January. He said the process was aimed at “building a new institution” now that parliament’s outgoing lower house with its former regime allies had been dissolved.

The elections bookend a process to bring legitimacy to the Algerian regime after Bouteflika was forced to step down after 20 years in power amid mass protests against his bid for a fifth term in office. 

Following months of a power vacuum and protests demanding an overhaul of the ruling system, Tebboune, a former premier under Bouteflika, was elected president in December 2019.

The Hirak protest movement boycotted the elections because they were held under the same power dynamics and political system as Bouteflika’s regime. Tebboune was elected in a vote marred by disruption and protests, with a voter turnout of less than 40 per cent.

Adamant about delivering “change,” Tebboune threw his weight behind constitutional amendments that he said would achieve the aspired reforms. While the new constitution limited the president’s tenure to two five-year terms in office, the amendments consolidated his powers.

The changes were put to a public referendum, also boycotted by the Hirak protest movement, which accused Tebboune of wanting to sustain the status quo by claiming a voter turnout of 66.8 per cent after the head of the Election Commission initially announced it at 22.7 per cent.

An escalating security clampdown continued to target figures associated with the Hirak, put on hold for months due to coronavirus restrictions.

The marches organised by the movement resumed earlier this year, albeit in smaller numbers than the original hundreds of thousands of people that had brought Algeria to a halt in 2019, before protest fatigue, its leaderless structure, and Covid-19 largely constrained the movement.

Early results from Saturday’s legislative elections gave the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) a narrow lead with 100 seats and the MSP a close second with 70. The pro-government secular Democratic National Rally (RND) maintained its quota from the outgoing parliament with approximately 50 seats, while independents also clinched 50 seats.

The FLN emerged from the Algerian liberation movement against French colonial rule, and its leaders have clung to power since the country’s independence in 1962.

“While it is still too early to say, it seems that the new parliament is mostly composed of the two old ruling parties, the FLN and RND, in addition to the Islamist MSP,” Algerian researcher Zine Ghebouli wrote on Twitter.

“Once again, the FLN proves itself to be a state apparatus, not a political party.”

Observers say a coalition government is likely if the official results support these numbers, which would buy the authorities more time to manage the legitimacy crisis the vote has stoked owing to the low voter turnout.

The government cancelled the operating licence of the France 24 TV channel on Sunday after briefly arresting two independent journalists, Khaled Drareni and Ihsane El-Kadi, on the eve of the election.

A government spokesman described France 24’s coverage of the Hirak protest movement as “clear and repeated hostility towards our country and its institutions.”

Drareni, a well-known television presenter in Algeria and the Algerian correspondent for the pressure group Reporters Without Borders, was released on 19 February this year after nearly a year in custody. He was previously sentenced to two years in prison for “inciting unarmed gatherings” and “undermining national unity.”

The Tunis-based Cairo Institute for Human Rights, an NGO, said the elections were held amid a “clear uptick in the repression of peaceful protests and dissent,” contradicting the foundation of a “new Algeria.”

If Algeria does not put in place long-term reforms that address the lack of trust in and accountability of its government, the CIHR said, it risks “significant instability and a profound economic crisis that will continue to drive inequality and popular anger.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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