The legislative elections will not save Algeria from its legitimacy problem
Coming after two years of open popular protest, the legislative elections of June 12 in Algeria will not be enough to resolve the country’s deep political impasse.
The upcoming polls are the latest attempt by President Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s administration to claim a coat of legitimacy it sorely lacks. Tebboune’s election in December 2019 and a constitutional referendum last November appeared to yield the results he and his sponsors of the country’s powerful security forces were seeking. High levels of abstention and protest, however, highlighted a wide divide between Algerians and their leaders (in the country of 43 million, less than one in seven eligible voters voted for the constitution, which nevertheless been adopted).
Algerian leaders have long dismissed this abyss, but it became undeniable in 2019 when the Hirak a protest movement erupted, ending the 20-year reign of Tebboune’s predecessor, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Mass protests, sparked by Bouteflika’s choice to run for a fifth presidential term but fueled by years of accumulated frustration and indignity, have also plunged the country into political stalemate. For the past two years, gray-haired authorities have faced protesters from a much younger population hungry for opportunity and less tolerant of Algeria’s long-standing isolation.
A corrupt parliament
Under the pretext of the new constitution, Tebboune in February dissolved the People’s National Assembly (APN), the lower house of the Algerian parliament, ending the normal five-year terms of deputies a year earlier. The move was in line with the authorities’ campaign of pseudo-reform aimed at appeasing disgruntled citizens and undermining calls for more fundamental change.
The AFN was a natural target for this campaign. Many Algerians have long viewed it as an endorsement body and have publicly ridiculed its members as incompetent and opportunistic. MPs enjoy high salaries and benefits, which are said to total more than twenty times the country’s minimum wage and are a perpetual source of resentment. The ruling parties, the National Liberation Front (FLN) and the National Democratic Rally (RND), Hirak‘s ire — have dominated parliament for decades. Whenever the country’s motley opposition parties have managed to win seats, parliamentary rules have prevented them from exerting significant influence in policymaking.
From that meager starting point, the chamber’s reputation sank further in September 2020, when former parliamentary vice-president Baha Eddine Tliba admitted in a corruption trial that he paid FLN leaders some $ 500,000 for first place on a list of candidates for election. In total, he estimated, these agreements brought top party officials more than $ 20 million in Algeria’s last legislative elections.
Crackdown on dissent
From Hirakin the ranks, few were disappointed to see the tainted parliament dissolved.
But the rush for elections has come up against the vision of a radical political renewal that the movement has advocated since its inception. The same is true of the new constitution, which leaves intact the long-standing imbalance of power between the Algerian executive and legislative powers. For these reasons, many Hirak activists have announced their intention to boycott the next elections and continue to demonstrate.
These protests represent only a fraction of Hirak‘s massive early participations. While the movement has maintained consistent participation throughout its first year, activists have halted protests for the coronavirus pandemic and have struggled to regain momentum since the marches restarted in February. Recent protests have largely been confined to major cities and a few opposition strongholds, particularly in and around the northern region of Kabylia.
Outside the dedicated core of protesters, many others have grown weary of the weekly marches. Circumstances have also changed since the start of the movement. “The economic fallout from COVID-19 has changed priorities,” a friend from Algiers wrote to me this spring. “People prefer stability.”
Others have been discouraged by internal conflicts within the leaderless movement, particularly over the place of women’s rights in the Hirakthe agenda of and fears of an Islamist infiltration. The authorities have stoked these fears through a media campaign aimed at discrediting the peaceful movement by linking it to various extremist and separatist movements. While such claims may sound absurd, in a country still traumatized by a decade of extremist violence in the 1990s, they remain effective.
However, other Algerians sympathetic to the Hirakhave chosen to stop demonstrating in the face of the escalating repression, which began during the Hirakis on hiatus and continues this year. Thousands of peaceful protesters, journalists, academics and ordinary citizens have been arrested, independent media have had their websites blocked, civil society organizations have been shut down, and detainees have reportedly been tortured by security services during their detention. In May, authorities unveiled new restrictions on protests just as they redoubled efforts to eradicate the weekly Hirak fully works. More than two hundred political prisoners currently sit in Algerian prisons, according to activists.
In addition to these issues, there is no shortage of policy challenges that potential lawmakers could campaign on. Unemployment is rampant, oil revenues have collapsed, reserve funds have dwindled and many are frustrated with the government’s handling of the pandemic, including the delay in vaccine deployment compared to its North African neighbors.
Amidst these challenges, Algeria’s traditional political actors have struggled to inspire voters. The FLN, RND and their allies are in disarray after corruption trials – another attempt by authorities to appease protesters – wiped out their senior ranks. The opposition parties, most of which have few supporters anyway, have largely chosen to boycott the elections. In addition to calling for more fundamental change, they say the elections will suffer from the same fraud that they say has long plagued polls in Algeria. Moreover, the creation in September 2019 of an independent electoral authority seems to have weighed little on questions of electoral integrity.
With most of the traditional parties set aside, new local alliances emerged, including many new faces. Unlike in previous years, the lists of independent candidates are more numerous than the lists affiliated to a party, darkening the electoral landscape. A careful examination of the independent lists, however, reveals a strong presence of candidates affiliated with the FLN and the RND. Islamists also occupy a prominent place, sparking speculation that they could seize the majority in the new parliament.
The official three-week campaign period, which began on May 17, has been lackluster, with relatively few rallies, posters or other typical signs of pre-election maneuvering. One of the few campaign highlights so far has been a blunder by a minor party leader who compared the female candidates on his party’s lists to the “best strawberries”. Changes to the electoral law weakened a 30% quota for women imposed in 2012, which will almost certainly lead to a decrease in women’s representation in the next parliament.
Online, young Algerians have had fun making fun of election posters and denouncing candidates as opportunists simply seeking lavish salaries and political access. For the first time this year, authorities have pledged substantial campaign allowances to candidates under 40, which critics say will leave the new parliament compromised even before it sits.
Low stakes, for now
Algerians who believe in the integrity of the country’s election results may seek to judge upcoming polls by two key parameters: turnout and spoiled ballots. Over the past decades, official parliamentary election results have shown a general decline in turnout and a steady increase in the rate of spoiled ballots, a common form of protest voting in Algeria.
Many Algerians place little value on these official statistics. Yet these figures are of paramount importance to President Tebboune and other members of the Algerian ruling class. Their efforts to encourage turnout in the June 12 elections are just one step in a larger quest for legitimacy. Today, the generation of independence-era heroes who ruled Algeria for decades are relinquishing power. The legitimacy they derived from the liberation struggle has long served to excuse their faults. Today, their departure leaves those who follow them facing a crucial question: what can we offer Algerians today to deserve their loyalty?
While critical to the country’s long-term prospects, it’s a question that will not be answered in this week’s election.
André G. Farrand lived in Algeria from 2013 to 2020, managing youth development programs. He is the translator of Zohra Drif At the heart of the battle of Algiers (2017) and author of The Algerian dream (coming this summer). He blogs on Ibn Ibn Battuta.
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