Algeria's election: Rejecting a stagnant political system
The 12 June snap parliamentary election for the National People's Assembly – the lower house of the Algerian parliament – revealed the depths of the country's political impasse.
Marked by a low turnout, it took three days for the Independent National Electoral Authority to announce the preliminary results.
This led many observers to allege that the delay was a stalling tactic by the political establishment to manipulate the results to maintain the status quo and resolve its legitimacy crisis.
"Over 24 million people are eligible to vote, but with a record low turnout of just 23.03% the grand majority decided to stay away from elections"
More than 13,000 candidates stood for the 407 seats in parliament, and the preliminary results seemed to breathe new life into the moribund National Liberation Front (FLN), which won 105 seats.
Its clone, the Democratic National Rally (RND) won 57 seats, HAMAS / MSP, their Islamist version, won 64, while independents won 78 seats.
It is expected that these political parties and independent candidates will form a block to support President Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s agenda.
Over 24 million people are eligible to vote, but with a record low turnout of just 23.03% the grand majority decided to stay away from elections, which the government had hoped would turn the page on the country’s political instability.
Despite losing more than 50 seats and controlling less than a quarter of the new assembly, the FLN, which has dominated Algeria’s politics since independence from France in 1962, managed to salvage some lost ground and reinstate its hegemony.
A boycott of the elections called by the Hirak, a grassroots protest movement calling for a far-reaching overhaul of the sphinxlike Algerian political system for the last two years, was also backed by opposition parties such as the Socialist Forces Front (FFS), and the Workers’ Party, a Trotskyist political party.
Some estimates suggest as many as one million invalid votes were cast.
Leaders of the opposition overseas such as the Rachad movement, which is led by Algerian academics, politicians, and activists in London and Paris - including members of the banned Islamic Salvation Front - rejected the polls as a farce and issued boycott calls.
Such calls reflect the weariness of Algerians, given the massive electoral frauds which have marked every election held in the country.
This is the third vote to take place since President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was ousted in 2019 after seeking a fifth term in office. His replacement, Tebboune, has vowed to break from the cronyism and corruption of the former regime.
However, everybody knows that taking part in legislative polls will not change the regime’s makeup. Rather, it simply provides an endorsement for this new phase of the system’s restoration.
“The majority of Algerians have other priorities which are social, economic, and democratic, . . . and their rejection of the ballot is a way of rebuking the system,” Louisa Hanoune, the general secretary of the Workers’ Party, said in a press conference following the vote.
"These elections confirmed what was known. The Algerian political system rejects change and one should not rely on this type of election to fix the system"
She also believes that the future National Assembly will “undeniably worsen the crisis as it only represents a minority.”
Algeria’s president has said he respects the decision of those who boycotted the vote and his government will work with the results, regardless of the turnout.
However, the recent boycott is only the latest amid widespread apathy in Algerian elections. In the referendum on the constitution in November 2020, nearly 70% of voters abstained.
In presidential elections in December 2020, the figure stood at around 60%, while the 12 June vote potentially marked the lowest turnout ever, with up to 77% not voting. Clearly, three-quarters of eligible voters in a population of 45 million do not believe in elections.
With authorities willing to carry on ruling the country without a popular base, including governing with illegitimate institutions without any foreseeable changes to power structures, the country is on the verge of a prolonged political crisis.
Such a state of affairs once again reinforces the message of the Hirak movement, which wants to uproot this corrupt system.
Despite brutal repression, unbearable censorship, large-scale manipulation, and psychological intimidation, the leaderless movement has continued to advocate for a fundamental overhaul of the system.
At least 258 Algerians are currently in jail because of their political activism and “unorthodox” opinions, and many more have already served jail sentences handed down by government-controlled trial courts in a desperate attempt to crackdown on dissent.
"Some estimates suggest as many as one million invalid votes were cast"
To underscore the relevance of the Hirak movement regarding the latest parliamentary elections, Karim Tabbou, the national coordinator of the Democratic and Social Union (UDS) party, denounced the corruption of the authorities.
“The progenies of the regime and corporate chieftains were shamelessly put on the top spot of electoral candidate lists and benefited from state funding for their campaign, and ultimately got elected,” he told the media.
In a bid to make a fresh start in this election, women made up half of the candidates for the first time. But most were invisible from the campaign, with their faces blurred or their ballots showing blank avatars instead.
Aissa Belhadi, president of the Good Governance Front (FBG), caused controversy when referring to the female candidates his party selected as “strawberries” and “beauties”, with thousands of internet users denouncing his remarks as sexist and misogynistic.
For the University of Oran sociology Professor Mohamed Mebtoul, these sexist objectifying slurs show that “we still live in a patriarchal society and gender equality is still a long way off,” he said.
But the fundamental question remains. Can Algeria generate democratic progress and the rule of law when elections are repressively controlled? It seems unlikely.
The 12 June parliamentary elections were meant to bolster the regime, wipe out the Hirak, and give the system some kind of legitimacy.
But for the academic Nacer Djabi, “these elections confirmed what was known. The Algerian political system rejects change and one should not rely on this type of elections to fix the system.”
It is obvious that maintaining the dreadful status quo seems to be the ultimate objective of the powers that be.
And with the ‘old guard’ cementing its grip on power, it seems that the country is on the verge of an ‘Algerian summer’ of mayhem.
Dr. Abdelkader Cheref is an Algerian academic and a freelance journalist based in the US.
He holds a PhD from the University of Exeter, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies. His research interests are primarily politics in the MENA region, democratisation, Islam/Islamism, and political violence with a special focus on the Maghreb.
Follow him on Twitter @Abdel_Cheref