Algeria's former single party battles decline

2012-05-08 14:25

Tipasa - Algeria's former single party goes into the May 10 legislative polls confident of victory but strained by internal divisions and the prospect of a presidential election in 2014.

The National Liberation Front, which was the main organ of the long and bloody struggle for independence from France, was for decades synonymous with power in Algeria but its share of the vote in recent polls has been dwindling inexorably.

In 2007, it mustered only 23% of the vote and 136 of the national assembly's 389 seats, leading it to form a coalition with two other parties, including the main Islamist movement.

A number of heavyweights in the party are mutineering against the leadership of secretary-general Abdelaziz Belkhadem and several constituencies will see two FLN candidates run against each other.

"The party is going into the election divided, there are at least two major factions," said Nacer Djabi, an Algerian political analyst.

"The FLN isn't going to disappear but it may come off badly," he said.

When last year's popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt threatened to spread to Algeria, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and the FLN brought in reforms, which among other things were meant to offer voters a broader choice of parties.

"Competition is fierce... and it's true that there is a risk of atomisation of the political landscape," Belkhadem told AFP in an interview.

The FLN officially lost its hegemony when it introduced multipartyism in 1989 and voters now have 44 parties to choose from in Thursday's polls but critics argue that most have been co-opted.

New path

Many of the smaller parties, however, were hastily created, sometimes days before the start of the campaign, and observers explain they were designed to host FLN dissidents expected to return to the fold after the election.

"The FLN is clearly trying to demonstrate that Algeria is on a new path... but I think it is taking a big chance because turnout could be very low," said John Entelis, editor-in-chief of the Journal of North African Studies.

Only 35% of Algeria's electorate cast a ballot in 2007 and many observers argue a new record low or even a similar figure would be a setback for the government.

Belkhadem himself said turnout of 45% would be satisfactory.

Protests broke out in January 2011 and there have been more self-immolations in Algeria than in Tunisia but, while discontent has continued to simmer, an Arab Spring-style movement never caught on.

"The regime has been very clever in allowing a lot of steam to be blown off," said Entelis, an Algeria expert who teaches political science at Fordham University in the United States.

"The government doesn't need anybody in the world," he said, in reference to the huge cash reserves generated by Algeria's oil and gas industry. "When they need to turn on the spigot, they can and they did."

Clerks, teachers and countless unions have taken to the streets and gone home days later with significant pay increases. The minimum wage was raised and the latest budget allocated $4.2bn to absorb the cost.

The FLN derives much of its legitimacy from the struggle against the French colonial power and in a year that will see the country mark 50 years of independence, on 05 July, the party is keen to burnish its legacy.

Final flurry

"President Bouteflika has largescale projects that are the final flurry of what he considers his lifetime achievement," Aissi Kassa, a member of the FLN's politburo, told AFP after a rally in the coastal town of Tipasa.

Algiers' long overdue underground was inaugurated late last year, the world's third largest mosque is being built and a new motorway running some 600 miles from between the eastern and western borders is being completed.

Bouteflika, who was already a minister in Algeria's first independent government in 1962 and has been president since 1999, is now 75 and widely expected not to seek a fourth mandate in the presidential election scheduled for 2014.

"These legislative polls feel a bit like primaries for the 2014 presidential vote," Djabi said. "Each camp is gauging its strength... The results of the legislative election will reveal the broad contours of the state of play."

While Belkhadem, a historical FLN leader with ties to the Islamists, is facing an internal rebellion, the name of Bouteflika's brother and trusted adviser Said has come up but talk of succession remains taboo and no frontrunner has emerged yet.