Abdellah Cheballah, AFP
Last updated: 10 May, 2012

Algeria votes in its first poll since Arab Spring

Algeria’s government announced a relatively high turnout for Thursday’s legislative polls that contrasts starkly with the widespread voter mistrust and disaffection that marked the campaign.

The regime had looked for a confidence vote on a reform package launched in the wake of the Arab Spring but many Algerians had dismissed it as further sealing the status quo and vowed to shun a vote they said would be fixed.

Foreign observers brought in by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika said the polling process was marred only by minor incidents but the electoral commission said it had received more than 150 complaints.

“Global turnout, national territory and diaspora combined, stands at 42.9 percent,” Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia told reporters.

Turnout hit a record low of 35 percent in polls in 2007.

Preliminary results were expected Friday but Bouteflika’s National Liberation Front (FLN), the former single party, and its two government allies, including the country’s main legal Islamist party, were confident of victory.

Despite the official turnout figure, many polling stations in Algiers seemed largely deserted and the overwhelming majority of voters were elderly but the state reported the highest turnouts in remote border regions.

Bouteflika, who was a minister in Algeria’s first independent government in 1962, has said the polls should mark the rise of a new generation.

In Bab El Oued, the beating heart of Algiers, the narrow tree-lined streets winding down to the seafront were unusually silent and the youth’s mood was one of bitter resignation.

“I switch on the TV set and I see election coverage on the state channel. It’s like news from a foreign country,” said Mohamed, a 30-year-old employed by a water delivery company.

“It’s not Algeria, it’s the land of those people in power.”

In messages exchanged on Facebook in the run-up to the vote, some young Algerians were wishing one another a “happy no-vote day” and enjoying a day off or making plans for an extended weekend at the beach.

Past elections have been marred by accusations of fraud and many Algerians say they are suspicious of any results announced by the regime.

The head of the European Union observation mission, Jose Ignacio Salafranca, told reporters that polling was conducted in “generally satisfactory” conditions.

Foreign observers totalled 500 to cover a country four times the size of France — Algeria is Africa’s largest nation — and they were denied access to the national voters roll.

The Algerian electoral commission said it had received dozens of complaints, including some concerning two ministers who are accused of campaigning around polling stations and now face legal proceedings.

Algeria has witnessed more self-immolations than Tunisia since 2011 and many people cannot understand how a state with foreign exchange reserves of $182 billion does not do more to improve their lives.

Social discontent and deadly riots rattled Algeria in January 2011 when popular revolts were spreading across the region but the regime snuffed out the protests with a sprinkling of political reforms and pay rises.

Forty-four parties — 21 of them newly created — battled for seats in an enlarged 462-strong parliament, in what Bouteflika has hailed as “the dawn of a new era”.

His FLN party has been steadily losing ground since pluralism was introduced in 1989 but it is expected to remain the biggest single force in parliament.

“Without anticipating on the results, a certain number of indications lead us to believe that the FLN will remain the country’s number one party,” FLN spokesman Aissi Kassa said.

The FLN is currently in a coalition with the National Rally for Democracy of Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia and the Movement of Society for Peace (MSP), a moderate Islamist party loyal to the regime.

The MSP has also expressed confidence it can cash in on the so-called “Green wave” that swept Islamists to the helm in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt in the wake of the Arab Spring.

But it lacks credibility with the radical Islamist base and is often described as a token party created by the regime to occupy the religious ground.

Many Algerians believe the country had its own, failed Arab Spring when the one-party system ended and the now banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won the first round of the ensuing 1991 election, considered the last free polls.

The army interrupted the vote, sparking a brutal decade-long civil war that left around 200,000 people dead.