On May 4th, Algerians went to the polls to cast their ballots in the country’s parliamentary elections. The ruling coalition of the National Liberation Front or Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) and the National Rally for Democracy (RND) emerged victorious, respectively winning 164 and ninety-seven of the 462 seats in the national assembly.
Constitutional amendments passed twice since President Abdelaziz Bouteflika came to power in 1999 as a member of the FLN. Namely, the new amendments in 2016 reintroduced the two-term limit on the presidency which was lifted to allow Bouteflika to run for a third term in 2008. He won a fourth term in 2014 and there is speculation that he will seek a fifth term in 2019. The amendments also require a parliamentary majority for the appointment of the prime minister, establish an independent electoral commission, and guarantee freedom of speech, press, and assembly. Many lawmakers hailed the constitutional changes as democratic reforms, but critics said the reforms were superficial and had little effect on the centers of power in the country.
Why this election matters
These parliamentary elections are significant because they precede the presidential elections in 2019. The issue of succession is at the forefront of the ruling FLN’s concerns. Bouteflika, who is eighty years old, suffered a stroke in 2013 that relegated him to a wheelchair, and his public appearances are rare. Given the uncertainty over the ailing president’s health, the legislative elections were critical for the FLN to win a strong parliamentary mandate and an advantage ahead of the 2019 ballot.
Meanwhile, Algeria is suffering from a number of social and economic ills. Unemployment is expected to rise to 13.2 percent in 2018, up from 11.7 percent this year and 10.5 percent in 2016; youth unemployment stands at a staggering thirty percent. Low oil prices have hit the country’s budget hard; the budget deficit was about twelve percent last year and foreign currency reserves are depleted. As a result, the government slashed spending by nine percent in 2016 and plans to increase the cut to fourteen percent this year. The government’s budget for 2017 also proposed hikes on fuel prices and tax increases. The high rates of unemployment, coupled with necessary subsidy cuts, poses a risk for the government amid growing social discontent.
The 2012 Election
Algerian Islamist parties fared well in the 2012 election with the Green Alliance, formed by the Movement for the Society of Peace (MSP), Ennahda (Renaissance), and Islah parties, winning forty-nine seats, getting Islamists sixty seats in total. The Front of Socialist Forces (FSS), one of Algeria’s largest opposition parties that had boycotted all national elections for the previous fifteen years, notably participated in the poll. The FLN unsurprisingly maintained a strong majority in the 2012 elections. Several opposition parties, including Ennahda and the MSP, boycotted the national assembly following the election and the 2014 presidential election, which Bouteflika won in a landslide, citing incidents of fraud.
Still, the 2012 elections saw some positive developments. A quota for female representation in parliament was introduced that allocated thirty percent of all seats to women. This set the stage for greater participation for and gains by female candidates in this year’s vote. Meanwhile, voter participation, which has been low in recent elections, increased to slightly to forty-three percent from thirty-five percent in the previous polls in 2007.
The 2017 Election
After initial registration in March, there were 12,591 approved candidates and sixty-three parties competing for 462 seats in the lower People’s National Assembly and 144 seats in the upper Council of the Nation. The total number reduced to 11,334 due to disqualifications and dropouts. Unlike previous parliamentary elections in 2007 and 2012, no major parties called for a boycott, however an unofficial call to boycott by young Algerians on YouTube reportedly went viral, with one video receiving 3.9 million views.
The newly chartered High Authority for Election Monitoring (HIISE), headed and overseen by Bouteflika appointee, Abdelwahab Derbal, supervised the elections. Derbal previously defected to the pro-Bouteflika camp from Ennahda in the 1990s. The Arab League’s Electoral Affairs Department also sent its own contingent of over a hundred observers at the end of March ahead of the elections. Observers from the United Nations, European Union, African Union, and the Organization for Islamic Cooperation were also present. The government also allocated a hundred thousand personnel for security at voting sites, including seventy thousand police officers and thirty thousand members of the Gendarmerie Nationale.
Many of the international observers arrived in April in order to observe the entire electoral process and meet with HIISE and political parties ahead of the ballot UN representative Issaka Souna said Algeria’s 2016 constitutional amendments would “certainly allow an improvement of the electoral process.” Representative of the African Union Deleita Mohamed Deleita, said he was “satisfied” with the Algerian government’s efforts to ensure the elections were carried out smoothly.
The FLN maintained its plurality in parliament. The ruling party won 164 seats (a loss of forty-four seats) but failed to will an absolute majority. The FLN allied with, the runner-up RND, which won ninety-seven seats, to form a majority bloc. A total of eighty-two seats in the ruling coalition’s block will be filled by women. The MSP came in third with thirty-three seats (six for women). Ennahda emerged with fifteen seats (four for women). Collectively, Islamist parties won sixty-seven seats, up from sixty in 2012.
The party with the most gender parity was the Algerian National Front (ANR), with half of its eight seats being filled by women. The ANR notably promoted an all-female party list in Chlef province, led by a lawyer Khaduja Buska. This list was the first of its kind in Algerian history.
Total voter turnout decreased by five percent from 2012 to thirty-eight percent, according to the Ministry of Interior. President Bouteflika made a rare public appearance to vote. Twenty-three million Algerians registered to vote, but a number of reports leading up to the election cited widespread voter apathy. Many expressed the view that their vote would not matter. The low turnout somewhat weakens the ruling mandate of the FLN. The party had actively campaigned for high turnout and emphasized voter participation as critical for the country’s stability. FLN Secretary-General Djamel Ould Abbes predicted a turnout rate of fifty percent in the days leading up to the election; the high turnout rate would have been viewed as an important symbolic victory.
The election was also not without complaints or controversies. There were over 350 reported cases of electoral misbehavior and allegations of fraud sent to HIISE, including reports of ballot box stuffing and cutting off electricity to voting stations. Another issue was the use of women’s faces on campaign posters. Some parties replaced the faces of female candidates with a blank space, which led to complaints by citizens that they could not see who they were voting for. As a result, the electoral commission in some provinces forced parties to reprint the posters with the female candidates’ faces or be disqualified. This caused outrage among Islamist parties like the MSP especially, who accused the commission of disenfranchising them.
Complaints by opposition leaders reflected the frustration with the ruling party and its unsurprising victory. The fact that the FLN secured neither a majority of seats nor the large voter turnout it had been hoping for reflects that some of these sentiments may be shared by the population. MSP leader, Abderazzak Makri levelled allegations of election fraud and claimed that his MSP-Islah coalition should have won four times as many seats under the new electoral rules rather than the thirty-three seats the coalition came away with. He claimed the turnout rate announced by the government was exaggerated. He said turnout was closer to just twenty-five percent, which, if true, would be a significant symbolic blow to the FLN. The FFS also leveled complaints and questioned the transparency of the process. “The biggest winner of this election is absenteeism, followed by blank voting papers,” a post-election statement said. The party added that the election results will make Algeria more, rather than less fragile, as the ruling party is not prepared to address the major challenges currently facing Algeria.
The critical issue going forward now is governance, namely whether this new government can gain the trust of the Algerian people and push through necessary reforms to include the social and economic climates. The FLN said that it stands ready to form a coalition government with any party that supports the president’s program. However, the greater challenge will be making sure that this political program can deliver the change that the country needs.
Elissa Miller is an assistant director at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Husayn Hosoda is an intern at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.