While Algerian authorities insist a parliamentary election on Thursday would consolidate democracy in the country, many people are skeptical about such statements and do not expect any major changes.
The major North African economy is facing pressure from its eastward neighbours where “Arab Spring” uprisings last year unseated autocratic leaders at a huge cost. People in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya are currently struggling to bring about genuine democracy and demanding their governments to reform the economy to end corruption, plutocracy and other ills related to neo-liberal economic policies pursued by former dictators.
Many political analysts believe the elections will pave way for the Islamist parities to gain power for the first time in Algeria’s history, and give them a strong say in the 462-seat national assembly. Neighbouring states like Tunisia and Egypt have also seen the rise of ‘moderate’ Islamic parties that advocate incorporation of Shariah law into the constitution.
However, some observers believe the rise of Islamists will not lead to radical change as they are moderate and loyal to the ruling establishment. Many of their leaders are already serving in the cabinet as ministers.
The country is still haunted from the atrocities of the 1992-2002 civil war that pitched the country’s military against the Islamists who won the 1991 general elections with a landslide but were cancelled by the government. An estimated 200,000 people were killed during the strife.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s government insists it is implementing a managed transition to greater democracy and says the election was a decisive stage in Algeria’s reform agenda.
“This election … (is a) test of the country’s credibility,” he said in a speech in the eastern city of Setif.
Despite the government’s insistence on common Algerians to come out in hordes and vote, critics say people will stay home as they find it hard to trust the system.
“I do not expect a high turnout,” Noureddine Benissad, head of the independent Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights, told Reuters on Tuesday. “Ordinary Algerians have lost interest in the election.”
The country’s establishment, still dominated by the old guard that won independence from France in 1962, is dreading a low turnout that will question the whole democratic process. The young generation perceives the country’s ruling elite as an authoritarian clique that has lived up its shelf life.
However, the government is making all the efforts it can to hold the fairest and most transparent election in the country’s 50-year-old history. More parties than ever before have been allowed to compete, and for the first time the European Union has been invited to monitor the vote.
Despite making foolproof arrangements for the elections taking place on Thursday 10 May, many Algerians are not ready to believe that elections change anything. They are adamant that the real power lies with an informal network, commonly known by the French term “le pouvoir,” or “the power,” which is dominated by the security forces. The establishment denies such suggestions and insists that the country is run by democratically-elected officials.
Some Algerians are using the election as an opportunity to protest. Members of the Movement of Independent Youth for Change have protested against an “electoral masquerade” in which they demanded the masses to stay away from the process. Authorities quickly moved in to arrest the activists and barred further protests.
Many socio-political observers believe oil revenues are contributing toward better standards of living, and suggest Algerians have become weary of an armed uprising after seeing bloodshed in neighbouring Libya.
Roll out Reform
Authorities have already made it clear that whatever the outcome of the vote, they will continue with the reform programme.
The first likely change will be the appointment of a new prime minister who is in line with President Bouteflika’s economic agenda. Outgoing Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, in power since 2008, implemented a programme of economic nationalism that lead to limited growth but outcry from business community over several key reforms.
There are also demands from the country’s politicians to re-distribute some power from the president to the elected parliament.
The presidential elections are less than two years away and Bouteflika, who is 75 and not in top shape like he used to be, has hinted he may not run for a fourth term. The president, during a speech in the northeastern town of Setif on Tuesday emphasised the need for a new generation of leaders. “For us, it’s over,” he declared.
A small crowd gathered last week to see Islamist candidate Amar Ghoul outside a cafe in Oued Smar, a working class district of the capital Algiers. He is currently serving as the public works minister in Ouyahia’s cabinet and is tipped as a strong candidate for prime minister.
Watching the crowd, many young people said they believe Ghoul is an honest and hard-working politician. Asked if that meant they would vote, most of the youth shrugged their head and said “No”.