Low vote turnout prompts questions in Algeria

ALGIERS — It didn’t significantly change the political landscape, but the meagre turnout for parliamentary elections in Algeria has prompted some questions about the future in this fledgling Arab democracy wrestling with the remnants of an Islamist insurgency.

Barely one in three registered voters — 35.65 per cent — made their way to the polling stations Thursday to determine the make-up of the National People’s Assembly for the next five years in this strategic old-rich country.

That compares to 65.6 per cent 10 years ago when Algeria held its first multiparty parliamentary elections at the height of a violent Islamist insurgency that left an estimated 150,000 dead during the 1990s.

Control of the chamber, as predicted, remains in the hands of a tripartite coalition that is allied with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in whose hands the real power in north Africa’s biggest nation is concentrated. Heading up the coalition is the National Liberation Front (FLN), once the only legal party in Algeria, which remained the biggest party with 136 seats, even after losing 67 places in the 389-seat chamber. Its partners, the National Democratic Rally (RND) and the Society of Peace Movement (MSP) took 61 and 52 seats respectively. Political analysts agree that few Algerians were swayed by a provocative call by the north African wing of Osama Ben Laden’s Al Qaeda network for a mass boycott of the polls, which it branded as a “farce.” More credible explanations for the low turnout were the inability of the rival parties to excite the electorate with fresh ideas, and that notion that the vote that really matters is the one for the presidency in 2009.

“The subtext to these elections is the lead-up to 2009 and how the stage will be set,” a Western diplomat in Algiers said. “The issue of Bouteflika’s future is on the lips of everyone,” he added, referring to speculation that the constitution may be changed to enable him to seek a third term.

Interior Minister Yazid Zerhouni played down the turnout figures, recalling how relatively few voters come out on election day in advanced democracies like Italy and the United States.

“It wasn’t an expression of rejection or disinterest on the part of citizens, but rather proof that citizens want politics to be conducted in a way that is more convincing for the democratic process,” he said Friday.

Many candidates had wished for a robust turnout as a way for Algerians to decry the triple suicide bombings in Algiers on April 11, claimed by Al Qaeda, which left 30 dead and 220 injured. The blasts, which notably targeted the main government building, raised the spectre of a return to the “black decade” of the 1990s that pitted the authorities against the hardline Armed Islamic Groups (GIA). That protracted conflict had been touched off by the abrupt cancellation of         multiparty elections in 1992 that an Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), had been poised to win. Security sources claim that Al Qaeda in north Africa — a remnant of that conflict, and formerly called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) — amounts to little more than a few hundred combatants in remote areas.

But it is enough for the Algerian military to maintain a sustained campaign against them, with a nod of approval from the United States and Europe who fear that a firm Islamist toehold in Algeria could threaten their homelands.

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