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Algerians are skeptical elections will result in change


Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is counting on elections as a response to his people's discontent. But even if Islamic forces win the polls, far-reaching changes are unlikely.

The parliamentary elections in Algeria on May 10 lie under a particular omen. They are the first elections in the North African country since the wave of Arab revolutions began and the first polls to take place since the state of emergency was lifted in February 2011 after 19 years.

The state of emergency had been imposed in 1992 following elections the previous year in which the radical Islamist party Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won the first round. An army-backed council proceeded to take over power, cancelled the second round of elections and imposed the state of emergency.

What followed was an extremely brutal civil war lasting some 10 years which left over 200,000 people dead. In view of the revolutionary upheaval in Tunisia and Egypt, President Bouteflika was forced last year to lift the state of emergency in order to keep the Algerian regime from experiencing the same turmoil.

A good chance for Islamists

Many experts believe that Islamist powers could win - as they have already in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco. It is however unlikely that a victory of the newly formed Islamist Green Alliance could once again lead to a state of emergency or even to a new civil war. The radical FIS, which long ago officially disbanded, is boycotting the polls on Thursday.

Protests in February 2011 did not escalate further in Algeria

Bouteflika apparently wants to use these elections to blow some steam out of the population's dissatisfaction about poverty and corruption. And a victory by moderate Islamist forces such as the Green Alliance could be to his benefit.

"These elections are clearly being organized to prevent an Arab spring in Algeria," said Rachid Ouaissa, director of the Center for Near and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Marburg. "In order to implement true democratic change, fundamental changes in the role of the army and a complete judicial reform would have to take place."

But Algeria was "still relatively far removed" from this, the German-Algerian political scientist said.

Reminders of civil war

One reason for this is the ossified power structures in the country. No president can govern without the full backing of the powerful military apparatus. Observers assume, though, that the traumatic memories many Algerians have of the bloody years of civil war after 1992 are also stopping the urge for change.

Despite rampant dissatisfaction about corruption, the lack of political freedom and youth unemployment of 45 percent, there was currently "little interest in a broadly based revolutionary movement," said North Africa expert Isabel Schäfer from the Center for Social and Political Research at Berlin's Humboldt University.

President Bouteflika responded to the simmerings of revolt with reforms
"The wounds and trauma of more than 10 years of civil war are too deep," Schäfer said in a guest piece for DW's Arab department.

In fact, Algeria took a different route than its neighbors Tunisia and Libya in the revolutionary year 2011. Although there were serious protests in the capital Algiers in January 2011, this dissent soon ebbed away and left the regime untouched. Economic concessions such as price cuts ensured that the protests in Algiers and other cities did not escalate further.

Elections as a calculated risk

It's rumored that the 75-year-old Bouteflika does not want to end his final term completely without reforms. He is praising the elections as part of an extensive reform package in which the constitution is supposed to be overhauled as well as permitting further political parties and private media.

Observers note that there are indications that the elections will proceed relatively transparent, at least for Algerian standards. Local and international election observers are being permitted this time, including 120 people named by the European Union who have already been accused of espionage in an Algerian media campaign.

In view of the parliament's limited authority, many analysts believe that the regime is taking a well calculated risk with the elections. Algeria is thus following the Moroccan model, Ouaissa said. A victory by moderate Islamist powers is knowingly permitted - while the actual rulers are for the time able to operate without any form of meaningful democratic control.

It is uncertain whether this could initiate far-reaching change for the long term, though. But the majority of Algerians disapprove of violent change like the Libyan model, Ouaissa said.

Calls for boycott

It would however be risky to interpret this stance as approval of the political system. Thousands of young Algerians have already announced on Facebook that they will boycott the elections. Ouaissa sees this movement indicative of the "deep rift" between the ruling elite, whose protagonists are often over 70 years old, and the youth, which make up the vast majority of the population. Many young Algerians don't trust a system that doesn't offer them any eligible employment and opportunities for development. They complain that the citizens are systematically excluded from Algeria's gas and oil wealth.

Several political parties are demonstratively not participating in the elections, for example the Rally for Culture and Democracy, which is deeply rooted in parts of the country's Berber population. In this respect, voter participation will be a significant indication of acceptance for the political system. It was never particularly high. During the last parliamentary elections, official figures said voter participation was a mere 35 percent.

Many experts already now doubt that these elections will even change anything in the population's dissatisfaction. Cosmetic reform steps have in the long term just as little prospect of success as gifts of money, said Schäfer.

"Whenever there is social unrest, state food subsidies were slightly raised in order to pacify the population," Schäfer said. "This strategy will not be able to be maintained for much longer."

Author: Moncef Slimi / sac

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