Claire Spencer
Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme & Second Century Initiative

Many observers were watching the Algerian national assembly elections of 10 May 2012 to see whether they would buck the regional trends of securing large majorities for Islamist parties.

The results did confound expectations, above all those of the largest 3-party Islamist 'Green Alliance', which collectively gained only 59 out of a total 462 available seats. The lion’s share went to the established ruling party, the National Liberation Front (FLN) which doubled its presence in the assembly to 220 seats. Apart from the catastrophic elections of 1991, cancelled when nearly won by the now dissolved Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), the FLN has formed the backbone of Algerian parliamentary politics since 1962.

Counting the Figures

Why the Islamists did badly has less to do with political majorities than numbers, and the credibility of the numbers at stake. First in line is the frequently disputed percentage of voter participation, or, as is more usually discussed in Algeria, the level of voter abstention. In the last general elections of 2007, 65% of the eligible electorate failed to vote according to the official tally, a figure widely contested as being an underestimate, even before considering the high numbers of spoilt ballots in this and previous elections. Despite fears of widespread abstention this year, the opening up of the political establishment to new parties and a new political clientele might well account for the rise from 35% to an acceptable 42% participation on 10 May. It is still less than might have been hoped for to validate a process of genuine political reform that these elections were supposed to represent.

In the event, it was the national electoral commission (CNSEL) that expressed its surprise when the Minister of Interior announced the turn-out to be 42.9% as early as the afternoon of 11 May, when a number of regions – including the capital Algiers – had still to return their results. Local media commentary has also highlighted regional and local variations that appear not to correspond to the level of voting observed in polling stations. As for previous ballots, the post-electoral analysis and objections are likely to continue, but redress is unlikely, not least since international approval has now been gained for the conduct of the election.

In this respect, a second set of figures has caused consternation to the European Union observer mission, invited as part of a total of 500 international observers to witness Algeria's elections for the first time. Since 2007, the electoral roll has been updated and revised to include nearly 4 million new names out of a total electoral of 21 million. The EU delegation’s request to see the consolidated list was denied, amidst rumours that the figures had been artificially inflated. This was deemed by the EU as a negative in an otherwise well-conducted electoral process. 

Third in line are persistent accusations of the government's fraudulent manipulation of the votes received by each party, whether engineered before or after the ballot. In advance of this year’s elections, the Algerian authorities made a number of assurances that the vote would be free and fair and devoid of the kind of gerrymandering of figures that - without openly admitting as much - they have engaged in in the past. Yet, Abdallah Djaballah, the leader of one of the more credible Islamist parties in the 'Green Alliance' which anticipated receiving 65 seats, has already cried foul at his party’s critically low showing at the polls. With only 7 seats, he has subsequently been calling on others to join him in a boycott of the newly elected National Popular Assembly (APN).

A fourth figure that has attracted external attention is the 30% (145 members) of parliamentary seats that will now be filled by women, who, who under new quota requirements, were promoted in party lists. If the Islamists have been kept at bay and women promoted, the logic implied for external consumption is that this year’s elections constitute political progress. What has been less noticed, however, is the final and most revealing of officially-sanctioned figures, namely, that these elections took place in a country that in 2011 alone saw 11,000 separate incidents of worker’s and professional strikes, rural and urban protests, and most alarmingly of all, a continuing series of copy-cat self-immolations amongst the young, and largely unemployed.

No Real Contest

The numbers game apart, most Algerians know that the reforms instigated last year did not include according the APN any larger a role than it already enjoys, which is to rubber-stamp decisions already taken by Algeria’s presidency and associated power-brokers. With notable exceptions, those who do enter the APN are co-opted, well-paid and powerless to instigate change that represents the will of the electorate or responds to the needs of the wider Algerian population.

This perhaps best explains the lack of electoral support for the Islamists, and indeed other long-standing opposition parties such as the Front of Socialist Forces (FFS). The very act of participating in the political charade of elections – which the FFS has refused to do for the past decade – is perceived as a sign of complicity in perpetuating the unrepresentative status quo. Haunted by the years of violence that followed on from the thwarted electoral victory of the FIS in 1991, most Algerians outside this game have so far found no alternative to expressing themselves except through fragmented and leaderless protests. 

One number that may give pause for thought for the future, however, is the age of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. At 75 it is widely believed he will not be seeking a further mandate at the 2014 presidential elections. The consolidation of parliamentary power in the hands of the FLN is seen by many as a precursor to the governing regime’s grooming one of its own to be the natural successor to Bouteflika at the presidency. Yet machinations of this kind were precisely the precursor to both Tunisians and Egyptians acting in early 2011 to prevent the regimes they subsequently unseated from prolonging themselves indefinitely without consent.