There are many pluses and minuses to the last Algerian parliamentary elections despite the bombast and apathy. The last polls are not a zero-sum game where the winner takes all; political games are not quite like that. The Algerian situation poll is far more complex and less than diminutive.
It was of no surprise that the ruling party, the National Liberation Front (FLN), was returned albeit at a reduced majority at 164 seats of the 462-member People’s National Assembly of Algeria’s bicameral parliament. The party will now rule together with its ally, the National Rally for Democracy (NRC), which gained 97 seats — up from the 68 members it got in the 2012 elections. The fact that the FLN lost about a quarter of its seats — it had 221 seats — in that elections — could signal a political slippery-slope.
However, the results may point to disturbing long-term electoral trends for the FLN. It suggests the need to pull for the ruling politicians to themselves up by the bootstraps, if further losses are not to be incurred or pile up in future elections down the road particularly because of the fact of the many Islamist political parties and coalitions that got 67 seats combined. But one can never know what may happen in the future if the economy continues to worsen and the socialists and leftists start making capital out of that. The election results point to the fact the FLN must do a significant U-turn if their fortunes are to remain.
The runner-up to this election and the subsequent results have shown complex factors at play. On the one hand, there was the potentially healthy side to a brewing “Algerian democracy” if that can be the right term. A total, and if I might say prodigious,12,000 candidates stood up for the elections in 97 lists and 63 political parties out of the 70 registered in the Ministry of Interior. As reported, there was a bit of scandal about some candidates allegedly paying to have their names on these lists, but this seems miniscule and negligible judging by the state of electoral politics in the Arab world and indeed elsewhere.
That in itself showed a mixture of the vibrancy of electoral politics in a country that only introduced the multi-party system in 1989 allowing for competitive elections and which had since 1962 when Algeria gained independence from France, was dominated by the FLN.
In this election, there was a different verve, gaiety and elan but a source of “anguishing concern” that led the Algerian political class to go down the street and rally with the voters. Ministers took up the ante and started to appeal to voters in a disparate attempt to reverse what was perceived as general apathy and popular disinterest. Prime Minister Abdul Malek Sellal himself took up the electoral fight, meeting many, including women voters, and calling upon them not to offer morning coffee to their husbands but force them to the polling stations with sticks — on a lighter note that countered the serious business of politics. Government officials urged the public to vote “massively” for the sake of the stability of the country, urging mosques to relay this message through their Friday khutbas (sermons).
Entering the fray
As proved by the election results, the government, their allies and the nefarious opposition smelt a proverbial rat, to use a common parlance. Unlike previous elections, this time, there was no electoral boycott, and except for a few minor political parties, all wanted to enter the poll fray, and a high turnout was expected to bolster their standings. Yet, come election day, many were dismayed by the fact that 2017 turned out to be the worst since the 2007 elections, registering a low 35 per cent polling.
As was expected, the government and its ruling party put on a brave face. Algerian Interior Minister Noureddine Bedoui called the election a success, which he couldn’t really say otherwise, given the state of things and the political machinations that went into the electoral process like the recent setting up of an Independent Electoral Commission; and given the fact that electoral participation has always been low with the highest turnout being 55 per cent in 1997. By and large, a 35 per cent turnout can be considered reasonable, but the FLN government and its allies should watch out for the seething state of the Algerian street, with the underlying frustrations across social strata — affecting not just the poor and the middle classes, but also the young. It is not quite a ticking time-bomb, as Algerians, on the whole, prefer not to take part in what was once the “domino-effect regime change” spurned on by the Arab Spring of 2011, nor do they want to contemplate or get back to the turmoil of the 1990s that had resulted in 200,000 killed in the country’s bloody civil war.
This might be a cautioning-comfort for the political class but things already stand faltering and abrupt. Half of the 40-million population of Algeria are under the age of 30 and one in three of the labour force are unemployed while youth unemployment hovering at around 25 per cent.
With falling oil revenues since 2014 and the fact that 60 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product relies on that black substance, the government had to “mothball”, many of the projects it promised it would set up after the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. The government is in a financial crunch as revenues slumped from $60 billion (Dh220.68 billion) in 2014 to $27.5 billion in 2016. During this election, the prime minister has allegedly been calling on angry crowds “to be patient” and admitting “there is no more money” in state coffers as quoted in the media.
Although nearly all political parties participated in the election, there was a string of slick YouTube videos urging people not to vote with one or two of those having been watched by more than three million people. Only around eight million people took part in the poll out of 23 million registered voters. Around two million voters were struck off as being null and void. Could these two-million or so be regarded as protest votes at the status quo one, one may be tempted to ask!
Algeria’s young population, if more of them could be persuaded to vote, could very well signal a move away from the FLN, particularly if it continues to fail to deliver. These youngsters are a different breed from the traditional base of support that identified with the FLN and the Algerian revolution against French colonialism. As the older generation disappears, the best bet for the party would be to move forward and create a more appealing base of support in between the myriad other political parties who are likely to come forward.
As for the immediate future, the current government needs to adopt a “nip-in-the-bud” approach to the flailing economy, rising unemployment, inflation and the housing crises in a country with an annual birth rate of 25 per cent.
Marwan Asmar is a commentator based in Amman. He has long worked in journalism and has a PhD in Political Science from Leeds University in the UK.