Spoiled ballots reflect loss of confidence in Algerian regime, politicians

Sunday 14/05/2017
Low turnout. Algerian women cast their votes at a polling station in Algiers, on May 4. (AFP)

Tunis - Algerian voters jolted the predictable routine of the country’s parliamen­tary elections by disfig­uring ballots or casting blank votes in record numbers, ex­posing discontent with the status quo amid anxieties over the lead­ership transition from ailing Presi­dent Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
Algerian Interior Ministry figures for the May 4 elections indicated that the number of spoiled and blank ballots equalled the com­bined vote total received by the two ruling parties — the National Libera­tion Front (FLN), led by Bouteflika, who has rarely been seen in public since a 2013 stroke, and the Demo­cratic National Rally, led by Boutef­lika’s top aide, Ahmed Ouyahia.
A total of 8,624,199 ballots were cast with 2,109,917 spoiled or blank papers, official figures showed.
The turnout was 35% of eligible voters compared to 43% in the 2012 election.
The FLN and the Rally together won 264 of the 462 parliamentary seats. They were trailed by an Is­lamist alliance led by the Muslim Brotherhood’s local branch, Move­ment for the Society of Peace, with 33 seats.
More than 30 opposition groups and alliances shared the rest with main secular parties, Socialist Forc­es Front and Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), winning 14 and nine seats, respectively.
Voters wrote on ballots their grievances about unemployment, corruption and the rigidity of a re­gime that has remained fundamen­tally the same since the country’s independence in 1962. Many also took issue with the opposition, which they branded as tame and docile, local media reported.
“The elections showed the re­gime has ruined its own legiti­macy,” said Algerian political com­mentator Saad Okba. “The spoiled ballots have nullified the legitima­cy of the upcoming parliament and the government is to blame for this disaster.”
“The government threatened youth that they would lose all social benefits from the state if they failed to vote and the youth spoiled the ballots to punish the government,” he said.
The government had hoped for a high turnout to claim a victory af­ter it secured the participation of opposition parties from all political hues for the first time in decades.
“The leaders of ruling parties and of this government of misery do not understand and care about the meaning of legitimacy. That’s why they undertook such actions that severed the core trunk of their le­gitimacy,” said Okba.
“A large majority of Algerians had perfectly expressed this view dur­ing the May 4 polls. For them, the parliament, like other bodies, does not represent their interests and even less so defend them,” political scientist Chadly Benguesmia said.
“That is why the divorce is con­summated between the population and both politicians and politics.”
Opposition Jil Jadid (New Gen­eration) leader Soufiane Djilali said: “The massive abstention is a total rejection of the regime.”
Other politicians slammed the government for the outcome of the vote. Far-left Socialist Party chief Louisa Hanoune called the results a “hold-up.”
Parliament will play a key role in sustaining Algeria’s social and political stability for the next five years at a time when leadership is searching for a way to manage the transition from Bouteflika’s 20-year rule, if his health permits him to complete his mandate in 2019.
Bouteflika, 80, was wheeled in a chair to vote but was unable to physically cast his ballot; one of his nephews did it for him. He also had trouble with the fingerprinting af­terward.
“The after-vote government will be squeezed between a deficit of legitimacy as the unpopularity of those who manage the country had come out beyond worse fore­casts and the necessity to make painful economic and financial ad­justments,” said Algerian political analyst Rabia Said.
“And in politics there is a rule of thumb that had not changed: No demands of sacrifices from the people in times when there is a shortage of legitimacy,” he added.
Analysts said there were no po­litical challenges to the govern­ment from organised opposition but feared popular discontent could fuel jihadism decades after Algeria emerged from a civil war that shook the country between 1992 and the early 2000s.
Sociologist Mohamed Taibi from Algiers University said: “Algeria’s opposition is conventional and formalistic. It is focused on short-term tactics. It has no strategy and the absence of a charismatic oppo­sition leader further deepens the crisis.”
Algerian officials shrugged off criticism of the elections and the pessimistic conclusions drawn by analysts about the low participa­tion, insisting that the country will remain stable.
They said Algerians enjoy fun­damental rights in a multiparty system with 72 registered political groups.
Algerian Foreign Minister Ram­tane Lamamra cited the “peaceful and fair elections” of May 4 as an example of what he called the “sig­nificant progress of democracy.”
“Democracy in Algeria is neither a campaign slogan nor a caprice of intellectuals. It is rather a day-to-day reality experienced by the Al­gerian people,” he said.