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May 10 elections: Who will show up?

Algerian legislative elections have rarely generated this much interest since those fated elections of 1991. For the past few months, pundits, journalists, politicians and government officials have been relaying each other commenting and speculating about this. The commentariat seems to have shifted into high gear with the official announcement by president Bouteflika that the elections will be held on May 10. Amel Boubekeur’s Countries at a crossroads 2011 report provides a good background on the current political situation in Algeria. John Entelis provides more background here.

These elections are simply following their 5-year cycle and there is nothing unusual about that. But the announcement of reforms in April of last year in response to riots and protests that had occurred earlier, and the events that followed both in Algeria and in the region, raised expectations that some sort of opening was going to happen. The Algerian government, it was hoped, was about to initiate the changes that the people needed and demanded, not simply continue its policy of bribing some groups while repressing others in order to maintain stability.  Those hopes were dashed when the new laws on non-governmental organizations, the media, and political parties were first drafted then enacted as well described here by Melissa Rahmouni or in this report of the The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law.

Heavy criticism did not prevent the government from forging ahead, oblivious of its surroundings, unperturbed and splendid in its nakedness like the proverbial emperor.  But, lacking any legitimacy in the eyes of its own people, the Algerian  regime always seeks foreign praise to feed its self-affirmation. With the eyes of the world focused on North Africa like never before, Algiers cannot afford to disappoint its international partners, Paris and Washington in particular. The success of elections in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco raised the bar and they make business-as-usual ballot-stuffing, or better yet cancelling , of elections a challenging proposition. It goes without saying that the regime has no intention of relinquishing or sharing power. To believe otherwise is foolish.  But controlling the elections will require some creativity this time. So the strategy seems to include the following elements: First, the process is being flooded with new parties that offer very little in terms of new ideas or initiatives, and will merely confuse voters. Second,  a major effort is being mounted to convince people to vote.

Many of the new parties are splinter groups from established parties that are hoping to be rewarded with a few seats in parliament (where the numbers of seats was increased) thereby justifying their existence. They will make ideal clients for the deciders and can be conveniently paraded as living proof of Algeria’s political pluralism and openness should any nosy foreign government or NGO ask. Successive elections in the Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt have resulted in victories for Islamist parties and Libya has already indicated that it is heading in that direction. Another Islamist victory in Algeria would complete the Grand Slam that many outside Algeria are either expecting or wishing for.  Algerians see it as a  case of “been there , done that” that brings bad memories and for the Algerian regime it’s an opportunity to recycle the gambit it has used multiple times in the past: If you are afraid of the Islamists vote for one of these other parties carefully selected specially for you.  One should not lose sight, however, of the fact that the Islamist parties that are likely to participate in these elections are the domesticated kind very unlikely to pose a serious challenge to the current rulers the boasting of their leaders notwithstanding (The Moor Next Door provides some useful background on the MSP here) . The unexpected twist this year though is the possible participation of the Socialist Forces Front (FFS). The oldest opposition party, the secular FFS enjoys a measure of respect linked in great part to the principled positions of its founder/leader Hocine Ait-Ahmed who happens to be one  of  the few remaining “historical leaders” of the Algerian revolution. After boycotting many elections in the past (for which it was roundly criticized, even by its own partisans), the FFS has convened a series of meetings with members and sympathizers and seems to be leaning towards entering the contest although nothing has been officially announced. While recognizing that fraud in favor of the regime will undoubtedly mar these elections, just like the last presidential election as was shown by WikiLeaks, members have argued that another boycott will further marginalize the party. The absence of the rival Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), which has already declared that it will boycott these elections will further increase the possibility of a respectable result, especially in Kabylia the stronghold of both parties. From the point of view of the government, having the FFS on board provides an instant boost to the legitimacy of the process, a point the propaganda machine will surely not miss, and may increase popular participation in the elections.

Let’s not forget, however, that Algeria’s  parliament does little more than rubber-stamp decisions made by the government and does not play a real legislative role. This is unlikely to change in the near future even if some credible opposition were to gain a sizable share of the vote. Commentators keep referring to opportunities for a peaceful transition toward democracy that the regime should not miss. Pointing to elections as the right way to go. But this would go against the nature of the regime, as nicely put by Forest Whitaker’s character narrating the parable of the scorpion and the frog in that wonderful movie from 1992: The crying game.

Getting people to vote seems to be the main concern for the government at this point. Although it has been able to cover up the low turnouts in previous editions, doing this again may prove to be challenging. A well orchestrated campaign seems to be underway to encourage people to vote. The government has officially denied asking Imams to encourage people to vote but did not eliminate the possibility that they could bring this up in their sermons.  In his TV announcement, president Bouteflika reminded Algerians of their civic duty to vote and even issued a personal appeal:  “I am expecting you to give me reason  to be proud, once again, of the valorous Algerian people”. Cell phone owners have been receiving text messages telling them that to vote is “citizen act of responsibility”and now TV ads are spreading the same message. If encouragements are not sufficient, threats might do the trick as was implied by a legal expert on Algerian TV and carefully deconstructed here by blogger Algerianna. This concern for turn-out on the part of the regime seems to be justified as calls for a widespread boycott are gathering strength. In addition to the RCD, personalities as diverse as as Sid Ahmed Ghozali, prime minister during the 1991 elections, and Abdou Bendjoudi, leader of the Movement of the Independent Youth for Change (MJIC), have called for a boycott of the elections. Informal online polls ( Kalima DZ, AlgeriePatriotique, Mouwatin) also show an overwhelming intent to boycott the elections.

What is particularly edifying is the way this Get The Votes Out campaign from the government was launched in an incredibly gauche way that underscored the tone-deaf nature of the regime. President Bouteflika’s surrealist speech announcing the elections came a time when most of the country was still  reeling from the worst winter weather in recent memory. While urging them to vote, the president did not have a single word of compassion for  people isolated in mountains by snowstorms, facing food shortages and struggling to find butane gas for heating and cooking.  In response, people publicly burned they voting cards and one person destroyed his phone when he received one of those texts about voting. After hundreds of social protests it seems that the presidential palace still does not get the message. Will people send him a final notice on May 10 by not showing up?

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