ALGIERS - In successive waves, messages have appeared in both French and Arabic on mobile phones across Algeria. The first, sent by the Interior Ministry, declared that “voting is an act of citizenship and responsibility.” More recent messages sent on January 25 came from telephone providers like Mobilis. They encourage voters to register, but with mixed success. “It’s as if, in France, Gaz de France got into the act!” said one irritated Algerian intellectual. Even imams have been asked to beat the drum in their mosques.
Less than four months before the legislative elections, which should conclude by mid-May, Algerian authorities are trying to mobilize an apathetic electorate by reminding them of what happened in 2007 when 65% of the electorate failed to show up at the polls, the highest rate of abstention ever recorded.
For the first time in 12 years, ten new parties have been given permission to hold their first congress, and are expected to be authorized to stand for election. It’s then up to them to make their platforms known within the few remaining weeks. Some, like Amara Benyounes’s Union for Democracy and the Republic (UDR), have been waiting for this moment for years. Others, like Islamist Abadallah Saad Djaballah, a jurist, former imam and current director of El Adala (Justice and Development Front), are on their third attempt to create a party.
With 42 formations already in existence, this liberalization of the political landscape should bring the number of parties to nearly 60, the same level reached in 1991 when an open and competitive electoral process was interrupted by the regime, which cancelled elections after the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), an Islamist formation, led voting in the first round of polls. The showdown set off a bloody civil war that claimed as many as 200,000 lives, and ultimately reinforced military rule.
Ali Laskri, Secretary General of the Socialist Forces Front (FFS), is skeptical about the apparent new signs of political competition. “This isn’t a sign of opening up – it’s a way of fragmenting the electorate,” says Laskri.
This main opposition party, which boycotted elections in 2002 and 2007 as a way of denouncing what they consider to be a locked system, is still not sure it will take part in the forthcoming elections. However, seeing as the future Assembly is to revise the Constitution, it has launched consultations with its militants and sympathizers.
Worse than fraud
“The regime’s biggest mistake,” says Mr. Laskri, “isn’t even fraud -- it’s having pushed Algerians to no longer believe in elections.” For his part, former Prime Minister Sid Ahmed Ghozali, who created the Democratic Front in 1992 without ever having been able to hold a public meeting, has decided not to take part. “These elections are a foregone conclusion,” he says. “Those in power don’t have confidence in the people, and the people don’t have confidence in those in power.”
After the “Arab Spring” saw Islamist parties emerge victorious in elections in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt, Algerian Islamists are hoping for similar results. “If the elections are clean and transparent, the people will decide. We are ready, and – from what we’re hearing in the ranks -- very confident,” says Bougerra Soltani, president of the Social Movement for Peace (MSP) which is aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Created in 1990, the MSP, which has 51 members of parliament and has been part of the government for years, decided in early January to leave the presidential alliance, though leaving its four government ministers in place. It is now in the process of calling for Islamists – including former FIS militants -- to create an alliance. “All of those who have regulated their situation and enjoy civic rights are welcome. We welcome them as Algerians and not as former members of the FIS,” Mr. Soltani told Le Monde.
The interview with the Islamist leader took place in his office where a statement is displayed from the nation's Council of Ulemas (Islamic scholars): “The Algerian populace is Muslim; it belongs to the Arab nation. Those who think it has changed paths or is dead are very much mistaken.”
Read more from Le Monde in French
Photo - Daggett2008