Algeria’s problems won’t be solved at the ballot box. Here’s why

This story was published on The New Arab https://english.alaraby.co.uk/opinion/why-algerias-problems-wont-be-solved-ballot-box

On June 12 polls will open for Algerians to cast their vote in legislative elections which the regime hailed on Thursday as a “new era” for the country, free of the dirty money that has dogged Algerian politics for decades.

The elections, initially slated to take place in 2022, were brought forward following the decision by President Abdelmadjid Tebboune earlier this year to dissolve the parliament after returning from a lengthy medical absence in Germany.

Presented as part and parcel of the regime’s political roadmap, the move was more an attempt to detract from his possible replacement and to reassert control in the face of the Hirak movement, reasserting itself after the coronavirus hiatus.

In its quest for legitimacy, the government sees these elections as a means by which the transition period, which so far has included a new president in December 2019 and a constitutional referendum in November 2020 — albeit with record low turnout — can finally run its course.

Political parties running in the election such as the National Democratic Rally, New Algeria Front, El Moustakbal Front and Freedom and Justice Party, have insisted on the importance of widespread participation, for citizens to choose “qualified representatives” that can consolidate the “stability of the country” and reshape the National Assembly through elections they describe as an important step for a successful democratic transition.

However, the political maturity of Algerians who are fed up with being duped means many are unwilling to buy into the regime’s plans for reasserting legitimacy. They know it cannot and will not change, as long as it continues to deny them the opportunity to alter the political system for the better.

The general population can therefore be forgiven for reacting to the latest election with their seasoned approach of boycotting the ballot box, recognising it as a symbol that serves the interests of the regime, rather than a means by which grievances can be genuinely addressed and the deepening political crisis averted.

The last legislative elections held in 2017 resulted in a parliament in service of the oligarchs who made up Bouteflika’s corrupt entourage. Saturday’s process is instead likely to propel young and inexperienced elected officials into a legislative body inept in challenging the military rule of the country’s institutions.

The list of over 1,500 candidates approved by the Independent National Election Authority boasts a large portion of independents and young people, an indication of how civil society is playing a more active role within politics.

However, the cracks in this facade begin to emerge once it becomes obvious how several of these “independent” candidates, who supposedly make up a “new civil society”, are linked, or have benefited in some way from Bouteflika’s system, and are currently being relied upon to be of service to the political establishment — “le pouvoir”.

Those hoping to be elected, commonly referred to as “ghosts” for their notable public absence, have spent much of their time campaigning in closed meetings to avoid scrutiny and protests, while their faces decorate campaign posters plastered around towns and cities.

If ever there was an indicator of where people’s loyalties lie, it is with the pictures of the political detainees painted on the posters who languish in prison in their dozens for daring to challenge the regime with their non-violent stances.

The ruling elite’s efforts to include “change” and a “new Algeria” in their vocabulary may hint at growing recognition of the need to alter the system of governance in place since Algeria’s independence in 1962. But the striking lack of concrete actions is mirrored in their steadfast commitment to the old system’s survival, despite the plethora of false promises and facade of transparency in processes where the results are already predetermined.

Instead of convincing Algerians to trust in the new electoral law, which is supposed to reduce corruption in the political sphere, authorities have spent the weeks leading up to Saturday’s vote increasing the number of arrests and legal proceedings against opponents, hirakists and journalists.

The time when Tebboune hailed the “maturity” of a “ blessed Hirak” for enabling him to become president in December 2019 now seems long gone. That same Hirak is still calling for a civil state over a military one, and he has repaid it only with repression and crackdown.

According to the National Committee for Political Detainees, around 220 prominent activists, journalists, and protesters are currently imprisoned — the highest number in recent years — with dozens on hunger strike against their arbitrary detention.

The system is hell-bent on functioning in denial, painting the arbitrary arrests and increased repression as normal mechanisms in defense of the very freedoms and stability it jeopardises.

Defining the elections as “free” falls short when the conditions in which they are organised are anything but safe spaces with genuine opposition entities, unions, and autonomous and representative associations, where debates could be conducted in full respect of human rights and democratic freedoms.

While freer elections and younger candidates should be a milestone, power struggles between rival clans leave little room for new political alternatives that might enable proper representation with no strings attached.

The future of the Algerian state remains stagnant: Hung up on struggle between the regime, unwilling to accommodate an overhaul or to work properly with civil society, and the Hirak, unwilling to see any alternative that is not the complete overhaul they demand.

The organisers of the Hirak are themselves not blameless, having failed to offer a credible alternative, or find a figure that could embody the population’s democratic aspirations and negotiate with authorities to come to a compromise.

With a lack of compromise between these forces, a legislative election in the current socio-political climate simply makes little sense, along with the pockets of protests that lack strategy. As the 60th anniversary of its independence approaches next month, Algeria’s short-term future still looks particularly bleak and time is on no one’s side.

Along with the ongoing political stagnation, the economic crisis is worsening with the depletion of state coffers and ongoing debates on a viable long term diversification strategy.

Exacerbated by the pandemic, which saw Algeria close its borders for over a year, the 14 percent unemployment rate has pushed droves of young Algerians to risk fines, prison sentences and even death in search of a better life outside the country.

The irony of Algerians singing about leaving the country while cheering on their national team is not lost on anyone and speaks of the tragic relationship so many have with a homeland they love but feel betrayed and abandoned by.

The pertinent question now is how legitimacy can be earned and confidence restored in order to lift the country out of political crisis so it can face its multiple challenges both domestically and regionally.

Few will be holding their breath for Saturday’s elections to remedy that.

Researcher/Journalist specialising in North Africa | Focus on Algeria |