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