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Algerian elections: A vote of no confidence for an emperor without clothes

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The North Africa Journal- May 11, 2017: In a short story published in 1837, Danish author Hans Christian Andersen wrote about two cloth makers  who offered the emperor a new kind of royal robe they say was invisible to those who were unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent. In its entry on the story, a Wikipedia author says “when the Emperor parades before his subjects in his new clothes, no one dares to say that they don’t see any suit of clothes on him for fear that they will be seen as “unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent”. Finally, a child cries out, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!” “

The Algerian legislative elections that were held on May 4 were the perfect illustration of what the genius Danish author wrote exactly 180 years ago. In this case, however, and unlike the quiet populace witnessing the naked king and saying nothing, the Algerian people dared reminding the regime that it is clearly naked and exposed. They looked at the political field in front of them, and decided they did not want to deal with it.  For the regime, that was no big deal. As they announced the interim results, the Interior Minister and the heads of the two ruling parties FLN and RND, all together performed the Kumbaya dance of victory, but deep inside, they officially know now that they are ruling without a people to rule.

The emperor has no clothes

The emperor has no clothes

First the stats: Of the 23.25 million people registered to vote, participation hit 35.25% on May 4, roughly down 6% compared to the 2012 legislative elections. At the end of the voting, however, only 8.6 million of them voted, according to the ministry of interior, if one believes the ministry’s numbers, and a bit more logical 8.2 million, according to the constitutional council. Since election authorities and government watchdogs are super partisan, there is no real independent vetting of the figures, so we will go ahead and assume that the turnout was substantially lower than what the constitutional council reported.

The results confirm that the popular disgust in politics is now widespread. Even for the regions that have traditionally been source of good turnout in favor of the regime’s parties in previous elections, the results this time around are dismal. This includes the usual bastion of the ruling FLN party in the hauts-plateaux region,  the high plains sandwiched between the northeastern coast and the desert.

More dramatic, of the 8.2 million people who presumably voted, more than 2.1 million returned blank ballots.  This means of those who voted, at least 25.6% submitted a protest vote.  At the end, if you count those who actually picked candidates, just about 26.23% of the registered voters actually did what the regime wanted them to do.  Let’s put that into simple optics: you have 10 people in the room who will vote for you to become their manager, but less than three decide to go ahead and vote. What happens now? In normal circumstances, you didn’t get the job.

Although low turnout is in itself a huge problem, the protest votes or blank ballots constitute another level of concern for the regime, because not only this is a new record in Algeria’s modern history, but those who dropped white ballots showed that they were not neutral or oblivious to the regime, and left messages and notes that are extremely critical to it.  Several sources say the handwritten messages left on the blank ballots confirm the popular anger toward the regime.

The low turnout was not hard to predict.  The system is built on cronyism, nepotism, regional affiliations, corruption and incompetence.  What was the political landscape that the Algerian people saw in front of them as they prepared to vote?  The elections were organized in opaque conditions, and the campaigning, which started on April 9 was subdued, uneventful and boring. The arrest of Wafi Ould Abbes, the son of the head of the FLN party Djamel Ould Abbes pushed a growing number of voters into suspicion mode. Wafi Ould Abbes was arrested in his house, where the police found large sums of money and a list of candidates.  Within the party itself, infighting has accelerated lately over who would run for the legislative elections. In a recent party event in the province of Tiaret, one man died and six others were wounded during an intra-party confrontation.

El-Watan newspaper caricature on blank ballot

El-Watan newspaper caricature on blank ballot

Despite winning more seats in these latest elections, the second ruling party, RND, has had its own crises. In Batna, hundreds of party members protested the list of candidates designated to run. Nearly 500 members forced the Batna RND office to close amid an escalating conflict.  The party members saw the list as a sign of a takeover by a shady group of businessmen, who was endorsed by RND chief, and presidential advisor, Ahmed Ouyahia, under the pretext that the party “needed competent operatives.”  The list included no less than seven businessmen, including the owners of agribusinesses and construction companies.

The Islamist parties, organized under two alliances, failed miserably, just like their peers in the rest of the Islamic world who are seeing their very existence challenged.   Seeking to remain in the good graces of the regime, Algeria’s Islamist parties’ programs are no different than those of the ruling parties. In their so-called programs, they all sing the same song of stimulating domestic production, reducing imports, revising the tax and fiscal regimes, but with some religious undertone.   There is nothing in the Algerian core body politics that they are willing to challenge, and so these parties should be considered as having been neutralized by the regime.

For the Algerian people, the national assembly is not worthy of their votes.  From 2012 to 2017, the rubber-stamping assembly voted on 62 laws, compared to 75 in the previous five-year cycle. In contrast, there has been a substantial spike in presidential decrees, published in pages and pages of the official journal of the republic. The assembly’s prerogatives have been drastically diminished, as the presidential prerogatives skyrocketed.

Already weak, the opposition parties have suffered another setback this time, with many possibly on their way to complete collapse.   The leaderships of these small and ineffective opposition parties have never been so distant from their grassroots that the disconnect could be fatal for many of them. The pro-Berber parties of the RCD and FFS are seeing their biggest losses in their very own territory and fiefdom of the Kabylie region. In a key Kabyle city of Tizi Ouzou, a stunning 80% of the voters did not show up, and the first to lose were the RCD and FFS. Collectively, these two now control a meager 23 seats in the Algerian assembly, and they no longer have any leverage in parliament. The Workers’ Party of the vocal Ms. Louisa Hanoune also tanked, winning only a symbolic 11 seats.

The results of the May legislative elections in Algeria came to confirm the deep state of malaise affecting Algerian politics and how the system is seen by the voters. While the system has a severe flu on the political front, sadly nothing else seems to be working properly. The economy continues to struggle under the weight of weak oil prices, bad economic policies, and no mid-term prospect of growth.  Social unrest is reaching new heights under the weight of on going austerity measures and bad government policies that favor confrontation instead of consensual problem solving.

The months ahead are set to be very difficult for Algeria.  The ineffective Prime Minister Sellal will likely be reappointed, in an effort for the regime to maintain continuity. But the way the future cabinet looks is unclear.  The regime is aware that its position is very uncomfortable. Therefore it is likely going to reach out outside of its usual comfort zone of the FLN and RND parties to form a cabinet of “diversity” to lessen criticism.  The likely winners, however, will be the ultra conservative Islamists, who not only control a great deal of the social front, but they also control critical sectors of commerce and the import business, giving the regime more reasons to get them on board. However, Algeria does not need more conservative ideas.

The medium-term wildcard remains the future of the presidency.  Bouteflika’s health has long been problematic for Algeria’s governance and his succession will determine where Algeria is headed going forward. Until that happens, expect more of the same.

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The North Africa Journal is a leading English-language publication focused on North Africa. The Journal covers primarily the Maghreb region and expands its general coverage to the Sahel, Egypt, and beyond, when events in those regions affect the broader North Africa geography. The Journal does not have any affiliation with any institution and has been independent since its founding in 1996. Our position is to always bring our best analysis of events affecting the region, and remain as neutral as humanly possible. Our coverage is not limited to one single topic, but ranges from economic and political affairs, to security, defense, social and environmental issues. We rely on our full staff analysts and editors to bring you best-in-class analysis. We also work with sister company MEA Risk LLC, to leverage the presence on the ground of a solid network of contributors and experts. Information on MEA Risk can be found at www.MEA-Risk.com.