No whiff of Arab Spring in Algeria polls

2012-05-10 21:54

Algiers - Algeria on Thursday held its first polls since the Arab Spring amid deep voter disaffection, with the ageing ruling party confident of victory and its Islamist allies hoping for a strong showing.

As it does for every election, state television - the country's only channel - showed live footage of voters pouring into a polling station as soon as the doors opened and jostling to be the first to cast their ballot.

Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia boasted "higher than usual" turnout in Algiers, yet many polling stations in the capital seemed largely deserted on Thursday morning and the few voters were mostly elderly.

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who fought the French colonial power and was already a minister in Algeria's first independent government in 1962, has said the polls should mark the rise of a new generation.

In Bab El Oued, the beating heart of Algiers, the narrow tree-lined streets winding down to the seafront were unusually silent and the youth's mood was one of bitter resignation.

"I switch on the TV set and I see election coverage on the state channel. It's like news from a foreign country," said Mohamed, a 30-year-old employed by a water delivery company.

"It's not Algeria, it's the land of those people in power."

In messages exchanged on Facebook in the run-up to the vote, some young Algerians were wishing one another a "happy no-vote day" and enjoying a day off or making plans for an extended weekend at the beach.

Algeria has witnessed more self-immolations than Tunisia since 2011 and people cannot understand that a state with foreign exchange reserves of $182bn does not do more to improve their lives.

44 parties

Social discontent and deadly riots rattled Algeria in January 2011 when revolts were spreading across the region but the regime snuffed out the protests with a sprinkling of political reforms and pay rises.

Thursday's vote sees 44 parties - 21 of them newly created - battle for seats in an enlarged parliament of 462 lawmakers, in what Bouteflika has hailed as "the dawn of a new era".

His National Liberation Front (FLN), once the only party, has been steadily losing ground since pluralism was introduced in 1989 and has 136 seats in the outgoing assembly. While it could yet win the most votes, it is expected to seek alliances to govern.

The FLN is currently in a coalition with the National Rally for Democracy of Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia and the Movement of Society for Peace (MSP), the main legal Islamist party.

The MSP hopes it can cash in on the so-called "Green wave" that swept Islamists to the helm in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt in the wake of the Arab Spring revolts.

But the MSP lacks credibility with the radical Islamist base and is often described as a token party created by the regime to occupy the religious ground.

"The so-called Islamist MSP I abhor these people. It's all pretense," said Hamid, a former member of the banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) who wears a white knitted skull cap and sports a long, bushy beard.

Many Algerians also believe the country already had its own, failed Arab Spring when the one-party system ended and the FIS won the first round of the ensuing 1991 election, considered the last free polls to be held in Algeria.

The army interrupted the vote, sparking a brutal decade-long civil war that left around 200 000 people dead and scars that are still raw.

Succession looms large

One party, the Rally for Culture and Democracy, has urged a boycott of the vote and believes the real turnout is unlikely to top 20%, a forecast echoed by many Algerians in the street.

The interior minister gave a provisional turnout figure of 15.5% at 1100 GMT.

The FLN's secretary general, Abdelaziz Belkhadem, said last week he would be satisfied if 45% of the more than 21.5 million registered voters in the country cast a ballot.

The regime has tried to assuage fears of fraud by inviting some 500 foreign election observers but Algeria is four times the size of France and few voters seemed convinced.

"According to our observers' latest update, operations are taking place normally and peacefully," the head of the European Union's monitoring mission, Jose Ignacio Salafranca, told reporters.

Bouteflika, who voted where he always does in Algiers, is 75 and the issue of his succession looms large.

"These legislative polls feel a bit like primaries for the 2014 presidential vote," sociologist Nacer Djabi said.