Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Algeria: Hope and Uncertainty as Algerians Go to Vote

Source: ISS

Hope and Uncertainty as Algerians Go to Vote

Abdelkader Abderrahmane, Senior Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Addis Ababa Office

On May 10th, parliamentary elections will be held in Algeria. These elections are not only marked by an early campaign that started in January, but they could also bring profound changes. Key to the success of the elections will be the voter turnout. The Algerian government is also aware that things must change and has promised that these elections would be free and transparent.

Twenty years after elections were cancelled just as it became clear they would see the victory of an Islamist political party, the question can be asked whether 2012, the year Algerians celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of their independence, will be a decisive year for both the country and the population? There is reason to hope that this will indeed be the case.

In retrospective of what happened during the Arab Spring, the advent of democracy in Algeria may seem slow. However, this slow process could nonetheless lead to a well-rooted democracy in the longer term. As the events in some Eastern European countries, as well as the current political deadlock in Egypt indicate, the emergence of fast track democracies are not necessarily a guaranty for stability or for a vibrant and healthy democracy in the longer term. In this regard, it is worth recalling that political reforms in Algeria started in 1988. This also means that the foundations for a genuine and strong democratic development exist in the country. The December 1991 elections were indeed the first democratic elections in the Arab world. And more than any exogenous model, the local experience can well be the base for the future. For Algerians, the uprisings in Tunis, Cairo and Benghazi are nothing but the continuity of their own struggle that started in October 1988 in Algiers.

Also, following the ousting of former President Zine El Abedine Ben Ali of Tunisia in January 2011, the State of Emergency in place in Algeria since January 1992 was removed in February 2011. This decision was followed by a televised speech of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announcing the pursuit of political and economic reforms already embarked upon, which would lead the country to modernity. But this is not enough. The road to progress and political and economic development cannot be solely found on hastily implemented reforms.

Since 1988, new geopolitical paradigms have become a reality in Algeria and in the Maghreb in general. North Africa’s history has taken a new direction in the past year – something that the Algerian government must rapidly take into account in order to include the country on the list of modern and stable democracies. If twenty years ago, the political changes demanded by the Algerian population may not have been possible because the Algerian leaders were not ready to comprehend the need for a change, but also because foreign powers did not want it to happen, this is not the case in 2012. The attitude of external powers have changed and the conditions that existed in the Arab world until recently have disappeared. Foreign powers that were in favour of maintaining the status quo in 1992 are no longer supporting this today. Furthermore, as the current Algerian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mourad Medelci, underscored: ‘these changes are unavoidable from within but they are even more unavoidable when we look at what is happening outside’.

However, in order for changes to occur, the population must also play its role to influence the future of the country. For a very long time, Algerians were known for their interest in politics - something they have lost in the last twenty years . It is therefore their duty to reengage with the debates about the society and where it is heading. Algerians ought to play an active role in the construction and destiny of their State; firstly by going to vote.

Indeed, the main question in these coming elections remains the voter turnout. In the last parliamentary elections of 2007, only 35% of the voting population cast their votes. This poor turnout was not only due to the inability of the political parties to mobilise their supporters, but also due to the deep mistrust Algerians had vis-à-vis the political parties. This year, the trend appears to be similar, with the population nurturing a profound distrust vis-à-vis politics. A recent poll indicated that only 50% of Algerians intend to vote on May 10th.

In order to avoid such a scenario that would undoubtedly discredit these elections in the eyes of the Algerian population and the international community the Algerian government has promised that these elections would be free and transparent. As a guaranty, Algiers has requested the presence of foreign observers from the African Union, the European Union, the Arab League and the Organisation of the Islamic Cooperation . But beyond these promises of transparency, it is the debates among political parties and editorialists that may indicate that these elections could signify a real change in Algerian politics.

Indeed, many commentators who are above reproach when it comes to sympathy with the government have considered the consequences of a boycott. In this regard, Louisa Hanoune, the General Secretary of the Parti des Travailleurs (Workers Party) has on numerous occasions qualified these elections as a ‘ very important rendez-vous with history’. Even the Front des Forces Socialistes (FFS or Socialist Front Forces), the historical opposition party par excellence, which has refused to participate in elections it considered to be fraudulent, have this year decided to participate to the electoral race. The leaders of the FFS indeed believe that these elections could bring the political change so long awaited in the country. Indicatively, these elections should lead to a new Constitution whereby the parliament will have greater power.

Within a complex political system, Abdelaziz Bouteflika has, since his accession to the presidency in 1999, not only cunningly managed to stay in power, but also brought peace and stability to the country. He has also embarked on profound political and economic reforms. His televised speech on April 2011 points in this direction. Also, by going to the polls on May 10th, Algerians would indicate their desire that the reforms promised by the president last year should continue.

An Algeria where democracy, pluralism and good governance prevail within an egalitarian Maghreb, can only be beneficial for the population of the entire region. Also while celebrating 50 years of independence, Algerian leaders ought to go back to the very essence of the events of November 1st, 1954 that led to the independence of the country. And in this period of great changes within the region, Algeria and Algerians have an immense opportunity to finally board the train to democracy and modernity.

The Algerian government cannot ignore the legitimate demands of the population that are not any different to those already expressed in October 1988. If they decided to boycott this crucial electoral rendez-vous, Algerians would take the risk of strengthening those elements within the government opposed to any profound political and economic reforms. They would also risk missing the opportunity of a real socio-political and economic change in the country. As the former Algerian Minister for Communication and Culture, Aboubakr Belkaid, once said, ‘the battles we lose are those that we do not engage in’.