Many observers anticipated Algeria's Islamist parties to copy the success of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and Tunisia's Ennahda in elections earlier this month. Their revival, however, was not to pass.
When the Arab Spring erupted in the beginning of 2011, most seasoned observers of the Middle East assumed that Algeria would soon succumb to the winds of change sweeping the region. With its youth unemployment, socio-economic inequalities, intensely weak private sector and history of political activism, protest and conflict, surely Algeria was next.
Not so. In the ensuing 16 months, Algeria consistently bucked those expectations and remained largely unaffected by the regional phenomenon. As Libya descended into chaos and Egypt faced great political tremors, Algeria remained steadfastly calm.
Algeria’s bucking of the Arab spring has lately been reaffirmed – yet, again – not by a lack of popular protest but, this time, by the country’s legislative election held on the 10th of May.
In these elections, the ruling party, Front de Libération National (FLN)– which has been in power since independence in 1962 – was challenged by several political parties in its domination of the Algerian National Assembly. Amongst these parties was an “Alliance Verte” (Green alliance), of Islamist parties who united together so as to better fight the electoral battle with the established FLN.
The “Alliance Verte” could have been the political force that – in the style of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood – were anointed as a new force in Algerian politics. Many anticipated a changed legislative body, in which the FLN would have to compromise with newly enlarged Islamist parties on new bills and legislation. This, however, was not to pass. In the event, the FLN was victorious with a 62 percent majority; the Green Alliance came in distant third place.
In the wake of such an unexpected result, the key question being asked is how the stagnant, bloated and disorganized FLN managed to score this electoral victory. The answer to this has several key factors influencing it.
Firstly, the national voter turnout was extremely low at 44.38%, which highlights the disillusionment felt by many Algerians with the political process. As a consequence of the low turnout, it is likely that the FLN was better at ‘getting out the vote’, and benefitted from the absence of many swing-voters, crucial for the Islamist parties.
Secondly, the Green Alliance was a relative newcomer to the Algerian political scene and may have had difficulty gathering support within the timeframe allowed for nationwide campaigning. Finally, the historical memory of the last time Islamists won legislative elections in 1991 and which directly caused the ensuing civil war, must have been hard to forget for many voters, who instead probably opted for the FLN as a safe option.
The election itself seems to have been fairly conducted with the EU election monitors declaring themselves largely satisfied and determining the suffrage as a major step towards political reform. The U.S. also welcomed the result, and especially the fact that about a third of the parliament is now composed of women. The result therefore cannot be dismissed as an official fudging, but as fairly legitimate.
Yet, there remain issues with the election. The fact that over 50% of the population did not actually vote, hints a wider electoral malaise, indicating a widespread dissatisfaction with the current political state of the country. The victory of the FLN also shows that there is unlikely to be major economic or social change; they are a safe pair of hands, not ones to give Algeria the profound reforms necessary to restructure its weak private sector or initiate increased social mobility.
The core message to take away from this result is that Algerians who voted, sought out stability over change; continuity over deep reform. It seems that the sort of all encompassing change that has swept through Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, is not welcomed by many Algerians. They have voted for gradual, moderate and – critically – safe change in the form of the FLN.
Indeed, the FLN may have won the election, but it seems to have done so based on it being the “safe pair of hands” rather than on any platform of ideas. Only the future will tell if Algeria is successful at weathering the Arab spring by means of such internal reform and regime consolidation. However for the time being the FLN and, by association, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika look more anchored and secure as they face those famous winds of change still blowing across the region.