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Case Analysis 10 June, 2012

The May 2012 Legislative Elections in Algeria

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The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 


Introduction

The legislative elections in Algeria had a number of results that may be surprising and unrealistic to some, especially and including some of the parties that took part in the elections. However, taking some of the pertinent factors into account can explain this discrepancy between expectation and reality. Before beginning an analysis of the factors that impacted the elections, it is imperative to examine some of the detailed results of the elections held on May 10, 2012:

Number of registered votes

21,645,841

Number of registered voters who cast their ballots

9,339,026

Rate of participation

43.14%

Number of tallied votes

7,634,979

Number of cancelled ballots

1,704,047

Proportion of counted votes/registered voters

35.27%

Proportion of counted votes/country population

20%

Assuming, for instance, that these official, declared results were the true and fair representation of a transparent, fair electoral process - leaving aside the multiple reasons that would lead one to doubt these results - the very first notable aspect of the declared results is the relatively low level of participation in the Algerian elections: 43.14% versus 52% and 54%, respectively, in each of Tunisia and Egypt, for the legislative elections which followed the demise of the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes.

 Legislative elections in Egypt and Tunisia, which were declared by both local and foreign observers to be transparent and highly democratic, witnessed wide public participation. In contrast, in Algeria these latest legislative elections were conducted to make way for the new five-year term of the parliament, and not the result of a popular uprising, though they did coincide with the Arab Spring, and followed the collapse of the Ben Ali (Tunisia), Mubarak (Egypt), and Gaddafi (Libya) regimes - the latter after NATO military intervention. These regional circumstances drove Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to initiate a process of political reform, which would allow for the [planned] legislative elections to be conducted within a new legal and political context, and would be brought about through a "national dialogue" with a number of political parties and political personages closely associated with the ruling regime.

 The national dialogue that stemmed from this proposal, and over which the incumbent president and his ruling regime exercised complete control (in total absence of civil society figures), led to a number of legal changes that governed the elections. Parliamentarians in the previous legislature's lower house (the "People's National Assembly") had passed, before their term expired, a new electoral law that paved the way for the Ministry of Interior's approval of no fewer than 22 new political parties to take part in the legislative elections held in May 2012, with these changes taking places just two months before the actual ballot. This had been the first time any new political parties had been licensed since 1999, with the newfound freedom to register parties being sprung like a surprise. This move was done as a response to the Arab Spring, in order to foster the impression that the Algerian authorities were adopting a reformist political agenda, and that the government would conduct upcoming legislative elections in a new political environment of openness and transparency. The newly-licensed political parties, however, did not have the time needed to prepare for the elections, lacking as they did a grassroots base and political party structures, which would have made their participation meaningful.

 Given the Algerian regime's widely-known track record of electoral fraud, which began in the post-independence period, and has been widely attested to by a myriad of observers, one could conclude with certainty that there must have been some level of fraud in terms of the seats won by individual parties, particularly in the number of votes garnered by the Front Liberationa Nationale (FLN), which sealed a plurality of the seats in the People's National Assembly (208 of 462 seats, or about 45% of the representative body). Seen from another perspective, it is not outlandish to conclude that these numbers reflect some measure of reality; rather, it is quite possible that the FLN was the party winning the greatest number of votes, although then again it would not have been by such a wide margin giving this unrealistic result.

Indeed, the Nationalist camp, represented by both the FLN and the National Rally for Democracy (RND)[1], still commands a large social presence in Algeria, particularly amongst the "generation of the revolution," which ended French occupation in 1965; nonetheless, it remains very unlikely that the FLN would have won the votes needed to secure so many parliamentary seats given the schisms and internal disputes which riddled the FLN on the eve of the legislative elections. The level of political in-fighting within the FLN led to a situation where the party's own Secretary General, Abdelaziz Belkhadem, came close to having his position within the party revoked.

 Another point to bear in mind that is that none of the political parties that have made claims about electoral fraud have provided any concrete evidence for these accusations.

The proportion of those abstaining from the vote was 56.86% of the electorate, a political and social indicator of the wide levels of alienation within Algerian society when it comes to the latest elections. Reports from a wide number of observers indicate that the bulk of this non-participation was the result of an elections' boycott; in other words, it was a political statement. One piece of evidence supporting this conjecture is the significant number of cancelled votes, the vast majority of which were empty ballots, indicating the voters' reluctance to lend their support to any of the blocs that were competing for their votes. As indicated above, a total 1.704 million ballots, or about 20% of those who cast their votes, had to be cancelled.

 The level of participation itself, at 43%, was [as stated earlier] quite slim when viewed in light of the vast resources expended by the state's media campaign urging wide participation in the elections on the part of the Algerian citizenry. During one of his many personal appearances during the campaign, the President himself urged Algerians to take part in the voting for the new legislature. In a speech delivered during February 2012, President Bouteflika compared the elections to the Algerian parliament that were soon to take place to the outbreak of the Algerian war of independence (November 1954), stating: "This is a very difficult time. One could say that voting on the coming May 10 is similar in importance to the announcement of the Liberation War which began during the Glorious November." Building on this, Bouteflika went so far as to suggest that non-participation in the elections could even lead to foreign intervention.[2] The same threats were echoed by the prime minister and the Secretary General of the National Rally for Democracy, Ahmad Ouyahia, who, when comparing the Arab Spring to a "flood," warned of the risk of a return to internal conflict within the country if the elections were boycotted.[3] 

 President Bouteflika became closely involved in the campaigning, and his final speech, in which he made reference to his affiliation with the FLN, had a deep impact: firstly, on the electorate, which continues to hold the FLN in great affection due to the latter's role in freeing the country from the French, and, secondly, on the state apparatus which takes their orders from the President.

 The FLN and the National Rally for Democracy received 13.244 million and 5.241 million votes, respectively; in other words, the votes won by this main alliance, on which the regime and the presidency, in particular, builds its legitimacy, received a total of 8.5% of the share of the total electorate, or 19.8% of those who actually voted or 24.2% of the approved votes (votes cast less the incomplete ballots); however, these figures allowed the ruling coalition to hold on to 60% of the seats in the legislature. In this way, the ruling coalition, despite having won the elections, has a demonstrably limited grassroots support base.

 This paper summarizes the factors that drove these results in the following way:

 The Post-Independence Political Regime of Algeria

 The political regime that has dominated Algeria since independence has been controlled by the military establishment, mainly the military intelligence apparatus, which clings to power in both the political and economic spheres, in particular. This is a non-transparent system, one in which the constitutionally mandated civilian bodies have power in name only; real authority rests with the military intelligence apparatus and its network of unofficial personal contacts and interests. In addition to this is the question of rentierism, as funds secured from the sale of [natural gas and] oil are used to bolster political patronage and buy "social peace". The ability of the authorities to control Algerian society and its politics is closely linked to the price of oil. Evidence of this can be found in the episode of the fall in oil prices during the 1980s, when the deteriorated ability of the Algerian government to control political matters after the collapse in oil prices in world markets [during 1986] led to the events of October 1988.  As is the case in all rentier states, social peace in Algeria is deeply connected to the finances received from the sale of hydrocarbons, and the regime's general financial well being. Thanks to the relative financial liquidity enjoyed by the Algerian regime at these times (having foreign currency reserves of over US$200 billion at the time of writing), the Ouyahia government managed to secure a number of social demands being vocalized by Algerian protest movements after the onset of the Arab Spring and the fall of the Mubarak and Ben Ali regimes. The main theme to emerge from the run-up to the May 2012 elections, and which continues to be a topic of importance, is the centrality of rents accrued from petroleum, which are controlled entirely by the political regime. It is through these rents that the regime in Algeria is able to exercise authority over the entire society, including those political and social actors that seek to dominate that society.


The Credibility of Algerian Political Parties

Existing political parties in Algeria are seen to be reliant on the political authorities and, thus, lack credibility within the Algerian public. Even political parties with an Islamist leaning, especially including the Movement for the Society of Peace, headed up by Bouguerra Soltani, have come to be seen as part and parcel of the Algerian political regime, since the aggregation of some of these parties within the National Transitional Council, set up by former President (1994-1999) Liamine Zourwal, in 1994. This Council was created to fill the institutional vacuum left by the nullification of the December 1991 parliamentary elections following the resignation of former president (1979-1992) Chadli Bendjedid in January 1992, which would otherwise have seen the rise to power of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS for Front Islamique du Salut).

Further to this, Islamist political parties in Algeria are not united, and are plagued with (internal) fissures and splits. The Islamist parties that came together in the Green Algeria voting bloc, including the Movement for the Society of Peace, the Nahda, and the National Reform Movement, all bet on the electoral gains made by ideologically similar groups in Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco, which would pave the way for them to sweep the legislature. This was a bet they lost, however. In the end, this bloc received only 48 seats, considerably fewer than the 52 won by Soltani's group alone during the legislative elections of 2007. The reasons behind this decline in popularity are results not only of the Algerian authorities' fraud, but also due to some important differences between Islamist parties recognized by the state in Algeria and An Nahda in Tunisia and the Justice and Development Party, a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot, in Egypt. The latter two were victims of injustice and persecution in their respective countries, under the previous regimes, while the recognized Islamist parties of Algeria have come to be a part of the political regime perceived, by the wider public, to have the sole aim of the acquisition of financial rents, while these groups have not been the victims of persecution and do not enjoy increased public credibility gained from being a victim, as far as Algerian voters are concerned (unlike the case with other political parties).


The Electoral System and Electoral Laws

Since 1997, Algeria had adopted a proportional representation (PR), bloc-based voting system, or what is called a "Party list" system within Governorate-level constituencies. Within each constituency, for which representatives are elected, through their blocs or "Party lists," however, there is a plurality voting system that puts the multi-member constituencies in place. Article 85 of the Algerian Electoral Law details the technical details of how seats in the legislature are distributed to the successful candidates.

This text deems, among other things, that no bloc receiving less than 5% of the approved votes will be left out before the final distribution of seats to the determined parliamentarians. With the number of Party lists running to 50 or more within any given constituency, and given the novelty of the formation of the majority of the blocs that ran in the elections, the majority of votes were scattered and cast in vain. Instead, the majority of seats went to the traditional political parties, which managed to dominate the National Assembly although they only gained a small number of the approved votes. It appears that there was a pre-meditated attempt on the part of the authorities to both flood the political battlefield in a way which would restrict, as much as possible, the effect of voting, and exclude the greatest possible number of voters, retaining power in the hands of the old guard.


The Civil War and Political Non-Participation

Without doubt, the experience of the Algerian civil war, which erupted after the military top-brass canceled the results of the legislative elections in January of 1992, has created a sense of trepidation amongst Algerian citizens, making Algerians reluctant to take part in political movements, being unwilling to be politically adventurous. The Arab Opinion Index, published by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, shows that Algeria has, by far, the highest levels of political apathy when compared to any other Arab country - 41% of Algerians stated that they had "marginal interest" in political affairs, with a further 39% stating that they had "no interest" in political affairs.[4] The political apathy among Algerians is particularly acute among youth in the country, who have lost all confidence in the political class and in the relevance of political action, seeing political organization as futile.


Implications of NATO Involvement in Libya

While there is widespread public sympathy in Algeria for the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, based on the peacefulness of those two popular uprisings, there is also a great disenchantment with NATO's interference in the Libyan revolution. Additionally, there is a real reticence about the possibility of foreign military intervention in Syria, or of arming the Syrian rebels. The history of rebellion against foreign domination, in addition to the nationalist sentiments that characterized Algerian public culture during the 1960s and 1970s, and remains present on both the popular and official levels of Algerian culture. The official, state-backed media has been able to capitalize on this extant public culture; basing their conclusions on developments in Libya, as well as salient aspects of the Syrian revolution, a large portion of Algerian public opinion has come to view the Arab Spring as a kind of Western conspiracy aiming to weaken, and then control, the Arab countries.


Preparations for Drafting a New Constitution and the 2014 Presidential Elections

The importance of these latest elections for the regime is that they represent a cornerstone of the political reform process that began in 2011, which aims to see the new parliament re-draft the country's constitution. With this in mind, it is inconceivable that the real authorities in Algeria, which include the military intelligence apparatus and related interest groups, would allow for other political actors outside of the FLN's Nationalist Bloc and the RND to control parliament and decide its future direction. In addition to this, there has been the need to prepare the ground for the 2014 presidential elections, if President Bouteflika's during his address in the town of Setif, to commemorate the massacre of Algerian civilians by French forces on May 8, 1945, is taken at face value the statements.

Following the elections, the leaders of 14 political parties, which had obtained 28 seats between them in the new parliament, as per the declared results, decided to group together and form a bloc that would reject the legitimacy of the official results and boycott the new parliament. Nonetheless, it is unlikely that this group will have the ability to impose discipline among the parliamentary deputies - already disenchanted with this decision on the part of their leaderships - within its own grouping, leaving aside the ability to influence Algerian politics. Some of these deputies have even broken off and joined other political parties' voting blocs, mainly the FLN's own bloc. This grouping of 14 political parties is composed of small parties, which even when combined do not form a significant politically influential grouping within the parliament. These 14 parties do not include influential opposition parties, such as the Green List, the Labour Party (which gained 23 seats on its own), and the Socialist Forces Front led by Hussein Ait Ahmad (which controls 27 seats).

The National Rally for Democracy, presently led by the Prime Minister Ahmad Ouyahia, provided another surprise in the results in that they only managed to secure 68 seats, a paltry number compared to its long-time paramour, the FLN.  This result apparently contains an implicit message for Ouyahia - that he will be pushed out of the upcoming presidential elections of 2014, leaving the possibility open for a new candidate who can enjoy the full support of the FLN, one who might likely come  from within its own ranks.

International observers of the legislative elections found time to welcome the results of the parliamentary elections; these observers came from the United Nations, the European Union, the Organization for African Unity, and the League of Arab States, and all made time to praise the positive steps for democratic reform reflected in the elections, as well as the high level of women's representation in the new parliament. The presence of international observers is not in and of itself a sufficient criterion for the legitimacy and transparency of the elections, however. The Algerian authorities have long since learned how to deal with international observers, and how to contain them within spaces to keep them under control.

There were no more than 500 international observers, divided among 11,520 voting centers, which between them were responsible for 48,327 polling stations throughout the country. This data shows the extreme difficulty in effectively monitoring these elections with such a small number of observers. In fact, Algeria's Ministry of Interior even refused to hand over the national voter registration list to either political parties or the foreign observers, thus preventing the observers from carrying out reliable cross-tabulations that would allow them to compare the registration data with the governorate-level registration lists. This is evidence of the observers being prevented from effectively carrying out their duties, at all stages of the electoral process. The international observers' positive attitudes towards the election results, despite these complications, reflects the fact that there is an international consensus on the need to accept the status quo in Algeria, and to not embarrass the country's regime. This international, and, particularly, European, approach is driven by Algeria's position as Europe's third-largest provider of foreign natural gas. In addition, there is the West's cautious approach to the implications of the Arab Spring. This consensus is also informed by the lessons learned by the West following the cancellation of the Algerian legislative elections in January 1992.

One exception to the above is the Carter Foundation, which declined to take part in the monitoring of the elections. The Foundation demanded the right to examine the run up to the elections, six months in advance of the actual ballot, and the Algerian authorities refused them that right. The Foundation had intended to monitor the preparatory stages of the elections, most notably the composition of the bodies overseeing voting stations.

The question now becomes: what possible future does Algeria have in light of this new political map, characterized by stagnation, fragmentation, and the exclusion of a wide section of the population which demands change? While the only possible route to change in Algeria is through gradual reform, the results themselves serve to prove the inability and unwillingness of those who hold effective political power in Algeria to actually implement "change from within". They also prove both how ineffectual the state-sanctioned political parties are in garnering public support, and the extent to which they have lost public credibility. Further, these results serve to demonstrate the weakness of Algerian civil society for structural reasons, as well as obstacles that stood in the way of any civil society efforts to organize the public towards the fulfillment of any demands not approved of by the Algerian authorities, all of which is a result of the Ministry of Interior's actions.


First Possible Scenario

In this, the most likely scenario, given the present political circumstances, and given Algeria's financial surplus, the opposition's political parties will not be able to pose a threat to the standing regime or to obstruct its political agenda of re-drafting the constitution. The opposition will remain fragmented and unable to instigate popular movements, while the political authorities will continue to prepare for the 2014 presidential elections by fielding a candidate who reflects their interests, a candidate who will belong to the Nationalist camp, and most likely the FLN. Likewise, popular movements shall be limited to the articulation of specific demands, such as an increase in wages, and will not constitute a fully-fledged political movement that makes demands for root-and-branch political reforms.


Second Possible Scenario

The second possible outcome is one that is closely tied to developments in the regional arena, in both the medium and long term, as the Algerian political regime will not be able to avoid genuine political reforms while democracy is taking root in the rest of the region, notably in Egypt and Tunisia. The spread of corruption and the iniquitous distribution of rents collected by the state increase the chances of a socio-political public movement, one which is not led by state-sanctioned political parties-which demands root-and-branch reforms, which would be particularly true in the event of a drop in world oil prices, or if the European economic crisis impedes the ability of the Algerian governing authorities to buy social peace through the distribution of revenues accrued from rents. Indeed, this is what happened in the 1980s, specifically during the October 1988 uprising. If the government fails to implement genuine, even if only partial, reforms, then the most likely triggers for such a grassroots movements would be the failure of the political authorities in Algeria and the government's financial constraints and its inability to fight corruption and to control societal affairs.


Third Possible Scenario

The last possible outcome covered here is the one which is the least likely - the case of an outbreak of popular anger in the short term as the result of the long-standing political bottleneck, feeding off of the changes presently underway in the region and worldwide. The outcomes of such an eventuality would be bleak. 
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[1] Since 1989 and the beginning of Algerian political pluralism, the public discourse in Algeria has grouped the political parties into three main categories: the Nationalist camp, which emphasizes its historical and revolutionary credibility and legitimacy, the Islamist camp, and the Laique (i.e., "secular") or "Democratic" camp.

[2] "Only God is permanent, and not Presidents: Voting prevents anarchy and foreign intervention," coverage of Bouteflika's public address in Arzou, in Echorouk Online, February 23, 2012, http://www.echoroukonline.com/ara/articles/123019.html.

[3] "Ouyahia warns of the spread of chaos from Iraq to Mali," El Khabar, May 6, 2012,

 http://www.elkhabar.com/ar/politique/288795.html

[4] See the summary report of the ACRPS Arab Opinion Index, http://english.dohainstitute.org/Home/Details?entityID=5ea4b31b-155d-4a9f-8f4d-a5b428135cd5&resourceId=a520ed46-4b5d-4b37-adb6-3e9a0cc9d975.