In Algeria, politicians fret about voter turnout while citizens worry about the price of potatoes

Sunday 30/04/2017
Who will vote? A passer-by looks at electoral campaign posters for the upcoming legislative election in Algiers. (AFP)

Tunis- Leaders of more than 60 parties of various politi­cal hues are campaigning ahead of Algeria’s May 4 parliamentary elections, the first vote since the firing of the notorious military intelligence ap­paratus chief General Mohamed Mediene and the first after consti­tutional reforms.
The tepid launch April 9 of the 3-week-long campaign amplified of­ficials’ fears that there is a lack of enthusiasm among potential vot­ers.
“Campaigning for elections in a country where the price of pota­toes is not within the reach of all will only leave the people uncon­cerned,” said Algerian political ana­lyst Aziz Ghedia.
Ghedia, who observed efforts by politicians and party activists to raise interest among would-be vot­ers, painted a morose picture of the start of the campaign.
“Nothing in our cities and villag­es in the first days of campaigning shows that in a few weeks citizens will line in their numbers to elect the next parliament,” he said.
The Algerian government achieved some success in the first test of the elections by luring more than 60 political groups along­side the main ruling parties — the National Liberation Front (FLN) chaired by Algerian President Ab­delaziz Bouteflika and its main ri­val National Rally for Democracy (RND) headed by Bouteflika’s Chief of Staff Ahmed Ouyahia.
However, it faces a daunting struggle to address indifference among the 23 million registered voters and match the turnout of 43% of the 2012 elections.
“All these efforts by government officials and party leaders under­score the fact that the only stake in the elections that has any value for the authorities is the participa­tion rate,” said political analyst Ali Boukhlef.
“Massive participation would be displayed as a successful refer­endum for the government, which can already boast about drawing almost all the political class into taking part in the election.”
Boukhlef and other political ob­servers, however, predict a low turnout.
“It is certain that the campaign­ing did not interest many. It will end as it had begun in the indiffer­ence of the general public,” Ghedia said.
“Algerians are not dupes. They understand very well that all elec­tions, whether parliamentarian or presidential, would not resolve their problems,” he added, citing the rising cost of living and other social problems such as housing shortages and unemployment.
Commentators cited the rising prices of potatoes — a staple for most Algerians — as an example of the chasms between ruling elites and ordinary people.

“The price of potatoes, an in­dispensable commodity for most Algerian families, are rising these days reaching up to 120 Algerian dinars ($1.10 per kilogram). What is the cause of this sudden rise, which reminds us of unfortunate crises in the past?” read a comment by local Liberté newspaper in refer­ence to the deep economic crisis of the early 1980s.
For analysts, potato prices high­light the disappointment among Algerians as the elections point to a country stuck in a time warp.
“Hoping for change in Algeria through participating in the elec­tions is like the one who ties his camel with a straw. All elections since 1991 did not bring about sta­bility and security in Algeria. All ballots were jeopardised by cheat­ing and lies about transition and re­forms,” said political commentator Saad Okba.
“Elections underline the fact that Algeria is frozen in time when compared to Morocco, which expe­riences economic transformation with the highest growth in North Africa, and to Tunisia where de­mocracy is established.”
Analysts were watching to see whether the score of the Islamists would change after the sacking of Mediene, who headed Algeria’s state intelligence service for more than two decades before being re­placed by Bouteflika in September 2015.
Algeria’s 462 seat-parliament has been dominated since independ­ence in 1962 by the FLN, which ruled in a single party regime un­til the early 1990s. Today, with its coalition ally the RND, the FLN controls most of the seats in parlia­ment.
In the election in 2012, Islamist groups sought to capitalise on the “Arab spring” protests. However, voters handed them their worst re­sult since Algeria’s first multiparty vote in 1991.
May’s elections take place follow­ing constitutional reforms intro­duced last year. The reforms would prepare for a smooth transition amid concern over the country’s political direction and Bouteflika’s health. They require the president to nominate a prime minister from the largest party in parliament.
Analysts said they doubt the reforms would fundamentally change the power structure in Algeria or whether the elections would test the dominant ruling class to the point of allowing politi­cal change.