Last week's parliamentary elections in Algeria went largely as expected: The two-party ruling coalition retained its majority in the country's National Assembly.and more »
A woman casts her ballot in Algeria’s 2014 presidential election at a polling station in Algiers. (Mohamed Messara/European Pressphoto Agency)
Last week’s parliamentary elections in Algeria went largely as expected: The two-party ruling coalition retained its majority in the country’s National Assembly. But for those following the elections, the real focus was on disappointing voter turnout. Although both the Algerian government and major opposition parties carried out a massive campaign urging people to vote, only 35.4 percent of Algerians did so — one of the lowest voter participation rates ever.
Low turnout is considered a major blow for the government, as well as the main opposition parties, which expected a voter turnout rate of 45 to 50 percent. The winners of the turnout race were the sensational online boycotting campaign #mansotich (a play on words to say “I will not vote”) and the boycotters: three smaller opposition parties led by known political figures. Sofiane Djilali, the leader of one of the opposition parties boycotting the elections, said to me, “If all the parties participate and you don’t, you attract more attention.”
What do these election results mean for Algerian opposition parties?
The National Liberation Front (FLN) won 164 of the 462 seats in the National Assembly, followed by the National Rally for Democracy (RND), with 100 seats. The largest opposition party, the Islamist Movement of Society for Peace (MSP), got only 33 seats.
[Here’s what to watch for in Algeria’s elections]
The opposition parties not only lost the elections but also their coalition. After the 2011 Arab uprisings, Algerian opposition parties started talks for cooperation against the government, which later led to the formation of the National Coordination for Liberties and Democratic Transition (CNLTD) and the Commission of Consultation and Monitoring of the Opposition (ICSO). For the first time in recent history, Islamist, leftist and nationalist parties participated together in a coalition.
The coalition began with high hopes aimed at ushering in a democratic transition in the country. The parties met regularly for a while; however, problems emerged. The coalition lost momentum over accusations of prioritizing party interests over common objectives and the lack of solutions for the democratic transition process. In a country with an already very low rate of trust for parties, the blunder of the opposition coalition made it impossible for the parties to present their project to the electorate and challenge the government.
The months leading to the legislative elections made the existing problems within the initiative even more apparent. The parties could not even agree on whether to participate in the elections or boycott. The leaders of two coalition parties exchanged strong words over social media, and the electoral process became the coup de grâce for the initiative. New coalitions may be formed in the near future, yet this experience showed that the opposition has a long way to go to pose a serious challenge to the ruling coalition.
What do these election results mean for the Algerian government?
A single-party regime ruled Algeria for decades after its independence in 1962. Following a change to its constitution in 1989, opposition parties were allowed, and the first elections were held — the only to be free and fair. But a coup in early 1992 put an end to Algeria’s attempt to democratize and launched an almost decade-long civil war. And while the Algerian government has allowed a multiparty system and held elections — albeit with a low level of integrity — rather than gone back to the pre-1989 order, it has used them as a tool to defuse the challenges coming from the opposition.
Even though opposition parties can run in elections and form electoral alliances, the government utilizes rifts between parties to further compartmentalize them. It does this through several methods, encouraging the formation of new parties or incorporating some of the parties into the government. The message of the opposition parties’ coalition being further muddled going into the election was an example of the utility of elections for the government.
The Algerian government won these legislative elections in two ways: In the short run, the ruling FLN preserved its position and will form the government, with the RND and other parties. And in the long term, these results indicate the continuation of the current state of affairs.
What is next for Algeria?
Now the focus has turned to the 2019 presidential election. With the declining health of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika — and new term limits added in last year’s constitutional amendments — it is likely that Algeria will have a new president. And while some of the opposition parties are getting ready for 2019, most opposition figures I interviewed this year believe that the end of the Bouteflika era will not create the power vacuum some Western analysts predict. In the meantime, the opposition’s inability to pose a serious challenge and the utility of elections and the multiparty system help the government to maintain the status quo.
Tahir Kilavuz is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter.