Algeria is holding a parliamentary election that is being boycotted by an influential protest movement and regarded by many with scepticism.
Political instability, a sharp drop in oil revenue plus the coronavirus pandemic have hampered many of the reforms promised by the government which took over after mass protests forced the president to step down in 2019.
“You want change, cast your ballot” was this year’s slogan, as the government fears a repeat of the historically low turnout seen in recent polls.
More independent candidates are standing than ever, thanks in part to new rules on funding, and for the first time in an Algerian election women make up half of the candidates.
Election results are expected by Monday.
This is the third vote to happen in Africa’s biggest nation since President Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned in April 2019, after hundreds of thousands of people had taken part in nationwide protests against his bid for a fifth term in office, and demanding an end to corruption and cronyism.
His successor Abdelmadjid Tebboune says this latest vote – for 407 new representatives in the lower house of parliament – will lead to a break from the “corrupt” regime and lay the foundations for a “new Algeria”.
Grants for young candidates
For the government’s critics, the pace of change has not been fast enough. They say the same people still wield real power in the country.
But new rules mean MPs who have served two or more electoral terms are automatically barred from running again.
More than 1,200 candidates involved in “suspicious activities and transactions” have been struck out by the electoral commission.
Foreign donors have also been banned, and independent candidates aged 40 and under now benefit from government grants of 300,000 dinars (£2,000; £1,600) to finance their campaigns.
As a result of the new regulations more than half of all candidates are independents, making party lists a minority for the first time.
“Holding elections is not the solution to our problems,” says Samir Belarbi of the huge popular movement, known as “Hirak”, that toppled former President Bouteflika.
Hirak does not have an official leader or even an address or telephone number but its demands are clear and unchanged – it wants the whole political establishment to be swept away.
“The country has always had elections but the regime has also always dominated parliament,” says Mr Belar.
Since Mr Bouteflika stood down Hirak has urged boycotts of all national votes, and current President Tebboune was himself elected amid the lowest turnout Algeria has ever seen – less than 40%.
Coronavirus put a halt to Hirak’s weekly demonstration for almost a year but they are now back, undoubtedly to the government’s chagrin.
Dozens of protesters and supporters of the movement across the country have been prosecuted or jailed according to rights groups. The authorities have accused “provocateurs” of infiltrating Hirak.
Mainstream opposition parties the Socialist Forces Front (FFS) and the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) also back a boycott, as their stronghold region of Kabylie has been at the forefront of the popular protests.
Voting rates in parts of Kabylie were close to zero in Algeria’s last two elections, and a repeat in Saturday’s parliamentary poll would certainly damage the legitimacy of any local MPs.
Algeria’s High Council of National Security has labelled two overseas entities with supporters in the country as “terrorist” organisations accusing them of “attempting to hijack” Algeria’s protests.
The Paris-based Movement for the Autonomy of Kabylie (Mak) is a separatist organisation seeking to split the northern Kabylie region from the rest of Algeria.
Meanwhile the Rachad movement – which translates as “righteousness” – is run by Algerian politicians and intellectuals in London including members of the banned Islamic Front of Salvation, calling for peaceful regime change in the country.
Despite crackdowns, the leaderless and seemingly non-partisan movement has consistently been able to take to the streets in various parts of the country.
Who backs the vote?
The FLN and RND – Algeria’s ruling and most-trusted parties – are taking part.
Senior officials from both parties were jailed for corruption alongside others in Mr Bouteflika’s inner circle.
New leadership may have taken the helm, but the lingering stench of the parties’ involvement in the old regime means they may well fail to win their usual majority.
“I see more seats going to Islamic parties and independent lists as the regime would thank them for taking part in the elections,” predicts Dalia Ghanem, resident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Lebanon.
Abdelkader Bengrina, who was runner-up in the 2019 presidential election, hopes his Harakat El-Bina party will get a significant share of the seats.
The largest Islamist party in parliament, the Movement of Society for Peace (MSP), did not have a candidate in the presidential election blaming a lack of transparency and the unmet demands of Hirak.
Its leader Abdelrezak Makri said this time around “there are indications these elections will be fair and transparent”, but did not say what those indications were nor how Hirak’s demands had been fulfilled.
Aside from wanting the entire political establishment swept away, Hirak has itslef been criticised for not offering a political proposition to implement their demands.
Algeria’s election in numbers:
- More than half of the population is eligible to vote – that is 23,587,815 people across 58 provinces
- A total of 902,365 Algerians abroad can also vote
- Some 1,500 candidates are competing for 407 seats in the lower house of parliament
- Numerous mobile polling stations serve the nomadic population in the south of the country
Known for being more critical of the regime and having joined the boycott on previous occasions, Justice and Development is another Islamist party standing in this election.
For its leader Abdallah Djaballah, “taking part in the elections does not mean agreeing with the regime. It is rather a legal way to express our opposition to the government”.
Beyond the Islamist parties, three independent alliances have emerged.
However, New Path, Impregnable Fortress and Call of the Homeland are each accused of being secretly sponsored by the current government.
Call of the Homeland was indeed created under the auspices of Nazih Beramda, a presidential adviser on civil society matters, and is regarded as President Tebboune’s party, having distanced himself from the FLN.
What happens now?
The calls for a boycott do not seem to be of huge concern to the authorities.
“Whatever the turnout is, the elections have to be fair and transparent so that those who deserve would win it,” President Tebboune said in April.
But it is unlikely that the voting process will be completely free of incident, given that previous elections saw ballot boxes burnt in some parts of the country and voters prevented from entering polling stations.
The military, who are said to be the final arbiter in Algeria’s political crises, have been very vocal about the recent developments.
Army chief Gen Said Chengriha warned last month the military was “determined to foil any plan or action meant to disrupt the electoral process”, and called on soldiers to perform their “voting duty”.
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