Western evaluations of the 1997 legislative elections in Algeria were broadly positive, or at least acquiescent. One European diplomat remarked laconically the day after the poll that the results “don’t cross my pain threshold”; another gave the elections a rating of “six out of ten” as far as their democratic pretensions were concerned. This way of looking at things assumes that elections in a country such as Algeria can be evaluated according to a scale on which zero equals totally fraudulent or completely rigged, and ten equals totally democratic, free and fair. This assumption in turn presupposes that elections are either more or less democratic, that a given election either respects or violates the rules of the democratic game, and that no other rules apply. Thus the possibility that, behind the veneer of formal but in fact only partial respect for democratic rules as these are understood in Washington, London and Paris, a quite different set of rules has been informally upheld in Algeria is excluded a priori. Western commentators on contemporary Algeria have accordingly resembled nineteenth-century French colonial observers who, unable to grasp that Algerian society functioned in accordance with different rules from those which applied in France, hastily concluded that rules were altogether absent. [1]

In contrast to the ideological judgments of outsiders, a quite different comment on the outcome of the June 1997 elections was made to me by an Algerian academic in the immediate aftermath of the poll: “Whether these elections have been democratic or not is your affair. They have been held in order to resolve a certain number of political problems; the question is whether they have done so.” So what were these elections really about, and what principles governed them?

Four Elections and a Referendum

Between November 1995 and October 1997, the Algerian electorate was summoned to the polling stations on no less than five occasions, and on each occasion the results were the object of explicit Western evaluations.

Let us leave the referendum aside for the moment and consider the four elections.

♦ The presidential election was seen as impressive, and as more, rather than less, democratic because a) it was pluralist (with four candidates), b) turnout was unquestionably high and gave every sign of being unforced if not enthusiastic, and c) the results were plausible. [2]

♦ The Popular National Assembly elections got mixed reviews. They had a satisfactorily pluralist outcome, with ten parties represented in the new assembly. The numbers of votes and seats won by the government-sponsored party, the National Democratic Rally (or Rassemblement Nationale Democratique, RND) were not excessive, and constitutional Islamist parties had between them secured 103 seats (27 percent of the total). The official turnout figures, however, appeared inflated to some observers and the whiff of rigging was too strong to ignore.

♦ The provincial and municipal elections were seen as decidedly worse: the RND won by too big a margin in both and the whiff of rigging was overpowering.

The spectrum of international evaluations, which we have observed, corresponded, at least at first glance, to a particular variable in these events: The simpler the issue in the vote, the freer and fairer the vote appeared to be. In 1995, only one position, the presidency, was to be filled; in June 1997, 380 Popular National Assembly seats were to be filled; while in October 1997, 1,880 legislative seats were to be filled in the country’s 48 wilayat (administrative regions) and as many as 13,123 council seats in the country’s 1,541 municipalities. In addition, 96 seats in the upper house of the national parliament, the Council of the Nation, were at stake in the October 23 elections, since these seats were to be filled by a subsequent vote of the local and regional assembly members elected on that day.

Was it the relative simplicity (or complexity) of the issue of being voted on that determined the degree of freedom and fairness of the electoral process? The answer is no. To begin, the number of seats in contention mattered less than the purpose and function of the office to which people were being elected. But this is not the whole story. For it is essential to understand that in none of these “elections” were candidates being elected, at least in the proper — or at any rate Western — sense of the term.

In 1995, the presidential election was not really an election, for there was only one plausible candidate in the “race”: the incumbent head of state, Liamine Zeroual. As for the other three candidates — Mahfoud Nahnah (leader of Hamas — now called the Movement of Society for Peace, MSP — the moderate Islamist party), Said Sadi (leader of the Berberist and secularist Rally for Culture and Democracy, RCD) and Noureddine Boukrouh (leader of the small Party of Algerian Renewal, PRA) — many Algerians commented that “ils faisaient de la figuration” (“they were there merely for form’s sake”). Their role was to give the proceedings the appearance of a pluralist election and to maximize turnout by enabling those electors inclined to be mobilized on ideological grounds to indulge themselves by voting for one of the three also-rans while everyone else voted for the army’s candidate on the entirely pragmatic grounds that he was the only one capable of filling the office in question. In short, in 1995 the voters did not really elect the president; they either expressed their ideological allegiances, or ratified the army’s choice of president.

What of June 1997? There is no doubt that a serious amount of rigging occurred. The role of the “bureaux itinerants” (mobile voting offices) was particularly suspect. These had previously been used almost exclusively in the thinly populated High Plateaux and the Sahara, where the scattered and semi-nomadic populations made special polling arrangements necessary. In June 1997, however, an astonishing number of such bureaux were used in the densely populated and entirely settled regions of northern Algeria, including the vicinity of Algiers. As a result, a substantial proportion of the voting in these crucial constituencies could not be monitored by observers posted by the political parties to ensure freedom and fairness at the polls. In addition, the so-called “special vote” — the ballots cast by members of the security forces (army, navy, airforce, gendarmerie, police, firemen, customs officers) — was recorded separately, in the barracks or stations of the personnel in question, and the parties were denied the right to observe these proceedings. Above all, however, the fact that the constituencies in June 1997 were the country’s 48 wilayat meant that the votes cast at commune level had to be aggregated at wilaya level.

At this level the parties were usually denied access to the count where the local results were consolidated, and it was probably at this stage in the process that the rigging chiefly occurred.

Having said this, the final outcome was believable, or at least tolerable, for two reasons. First, although the regime-sponsored RND predictably came first, it did not sweep the board: Its tally of 3.5 million votes represented no more than 33.66 percent of the total vote and its score of 155 seats amounted to only 41.05 percent of the total number of seats in the assembly. Second, nine other parties, including serious opposition parties such as Hocine Ait Ahmed’s Socialist Forces Front (FFS) and Abdallah Djaballah’s An-Nahda, won seats as well, together with 11 independent candidates. [3] So what had really happened?

The available evidence suggests that a broadly pre-determined result had been secured. While not conclusive, the evidence is consistent with three hypotheses. First, that the rigging which occurred at wilaya level had the function of “correcting” the votes of some of the electors. Second, that this was done not only, or even mainly, to secure the victory of RND candidates but rather to ensure that the electorate, in effect, once again ratified the much broader and actually quite complex choices of the decision-makers in the regime. Third, the latter sought to ensure not only that pro-government parties (the RND and the FLN) between them secured an overall majority, but also that the various opposition parties did well enough to have a stake in the system, helped to legitimate it and thereby effaced the memory of the 1991 elections. As an Algerian observer commented, &ldquot;The people are not really electing a government, they are mainly electing an opposition,” except in both cases the people were really ratifying the choices of the regime, which was as concerned to have the opposition that suited it as the government that suited it.

These hypotheses also apply to the municipal and regional elections of October 23, 1997, except that on this occasion the rigging went much further, because the results to be secured were less plausible than in June.

There was a massive increase in the RND’s popular vote in October over its vote in June, and a corresponding increase in its share of the seats to be won, and that the increase in both votes and seats was greater at the municipal level than at the provincial level. The reason for this was almost certainly that the local councils actually matter far more than the provincial assemblies. The wilaya assemblies are really no more than consultative bodies, for it is the wali (prefect) appointed by the central government who decides things at this level. The municipal councils, on the other hand, are not merely consultative since they elect their own executives, the local mayor and his deputies, who actually control budgets and other resources (including registers of electors) on the ground. Thus the stakes were higher at the municipal level than at the regional level, and the regime clearly decided that the two pro-government parties (RND and FLN) should have the lion’s share (77 percent) of the seats to be allocated at this level. The results accordingly registered a massive fall in votes secured by the other parties, and especially the two constitutional Islamist parties (MSP and An-Nahda), as well as an appreciable rise in the FLN’s vote.

These results prompted a massive public outcry — far more vociferous and protracted than the one that occurred in June — against the rigging that had occurred. The perception of rigging was greater at the municipal level, not only because the results were so disappointing for the other parties, but because the rigging in this instance had to be done at this level. There were no alibis available on October 23, as there had been on June 5, when free and fair voting could be permitted at the communal level because the rigging was to be done discreetly at wilaya level after the local counts had been completed in the presence of party observers and to their provisional satisfaction. [4]

If the explanation advanced here for the rigging that appears to have occurred is correct, what are its implications for the prospects of a genuine evolution towards a democratic system in Algeria?

Progress or Regression?

The results of the October 1997 elections strongly suggested that the regime had engineered what amounted, at least provisionally, to a return to the status quo ante 1989 with pluralist trimmings. Effective political representation was once again virtually monopolized by regime-sponsored parties, except that there were now two of these (the RND and the FLN) as well as two of everything else — two constitutional Islamist parties (the MSP and An-Nahda), two parties based on the Berberophone Kabyle minority (the RCD and the FFS), a state of affairs that maximized the regime’s room for maneuver and its ability to play off the parties against one another ad infinitum. Formalities apart, however, the crucial difference between the new dispensation and the pre-1989 regime is that, in respect of the character and political content of the electoral process, formal pluralism is actually less democratic than formal monolithism.

Elections for the various assemblies were regularly held under the old one-party system. The rules governing these elections stipulated that all candidates had to be approved by the FLN party and sponsored by it on a single FLN list, but that there should always be more candidates than seats to be won: twice as many in the municipal and provincial elections, and three times as many in the Popular National Assembly elections.

As a result, while explicit party-political pluralism was not permitted, the electors nonetheless had a real, if limited, choice. Moreover, the fact that they had a choice obliged the candidates to mount substantive campaigns which included real canvassing. While a single official FLN list was formally presented, informal “slates” or tickets were formed by rival factions among the approved candidates at the local level, and to secure electoral support these “slates” had to pay attention to the electors’ grievances and promise to represent their interests. Moreover, because the candidates were all vetted by the regime, the state was generally indifferent to the electoral outcome; its main concern was that there should be a high turnout so that the people legitimated the system. To this end it was actually in the state’s interest to allow the electors a real choice and to respect the choices they made. [5]

Under the post-1989 conditions of formal pluralism, however, the state has been far from indifferent to the outcomes of electoral contests and unable to adopt a laissez-faire attitude. On the contrary, the evidence of the 1997 elections suggests that the results of the electors’ choices have to be “corrected” in the most systematic way to make them correspond to the backroom bargains struck by the various factions within the regime and so preserve the complex internal equilibria on which the regime rests.

The advent of formal pluralism in Algeria, therefore, has tended to make it harder rather than easier for the regime to secure popular legitimation through the electoral process, since popular awareness of rigging naturally breeds cynicism, and turnout figures are routinely inflated. This is not the only reason for this, however.

Given that the substance of what the electorate is allowed to do is to ratify the regime’s choices rather than freely elect their own representatives, it is natural that popular willingness to engage in this activity should be maximized when the choice to be ratified is that of the head of state, especially under conditions of grave national crisis, and that it should be much lower when the choices to be ratified are those of members of largely powerless assemblies at the national and regional levels, and minimized when the choice to be ratified is that of the more or less abstruse provisions of a new constitution which, experience teaches, is no more likely to be respected by the powers that be than its predecessors ever were.

Moreover, the fact that the manipulations involved tend not only to distort voter choices but also to engineer abrupt and otherwise inexplicable changes in the electoral fortunes of the various parties suggests that, far from permitting genuine shifts in public opinion to be registered, elections in Algeria under conditions of formal pluralism tend to have the opposite effect. This state of affairs makes it difficult if not impossible for the various parties, including those with impressive opposition credentials, to act as effective vehicles of a genuine development of democracy. As a result, popular cynicism about the voting process is liable to be compounded by cynicism about the political parties themselves. Obliged to participate in the electoral process since the only alternative is to accept their total marginalization, the opposition parties no less than the pro-government parties have been used by the regime and compromised by it.


Western perceptions of what has been happening in Algeria need to be substantially revised. The elections which have been held since 1995 can certainly be defended on at least two grounds: First, they have permitted an at least formal return to constitutional legitimacy and, second, they have enabled representative and consultative institutions of a kind to be reestablished and this restoration of the civilian political sphere has undoubtedly been a necessary (although not a sufficient) condition of a resolution of Algeria’s crisis. It has long been clear that only by providing institutional channels for the peaceful expression of competing outlooks and interests could the Algerian state hope to end the violence which has been ravaging the country. Political institutionalization is one thing; democratization is quite another. While rightly welcoming the reestablishment of representative institutions, Western observers who sincerely support the advent of democracy in Algeria should be wary of endorsing as democratic electoral proceedings that have really conformed to other principles and obeyed other logics.


[1] Bruno Etienne, L’Algerie, Cultures et Revolution (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1977), p. 98.
[2] As was noted by, among others, Paul Rich and Sarah Joseph in Algeria: Democratic Transition or Political Stalemate? (London: Saferworld Report, May 1997), p. 10.
[3] The legislative elections results, as officially announced, were subsequently modified on appeal; the FLN had its tally reduced from 64 to 62, the RND gained a seat, making its total 156, and the FFS gained a seat, making its final total 20, one more than its Kabyle rival, the RCD.
[4] On June 5, I was able to observe polling in the town of Bouira (80 miles southeast of Algiers) and to interview local officials and candidates of the RND, FLN, FFS and RCD in both Bouira and Tizi Ouzou (where I also interviewed the head of the MSP list); none of them made any serious complaints about the way in which the voting process was being conducted at the local level.
[5] From my fieldwork on local politics in the Kabylia region in the 1970s, I can affirm that these elections were taken very seriously by the local populations, at any rate in the countryside, notwithstanding the cynical view of them entertained at the time by opposition movements in exile.

How to cite this article:

Hugh Roberts "Algeria’s Contested Elections," Middle East Report 209 (Winter 1998).

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