At first glance, Algeria’s national assembly elections might seem to have been a fiasco. Held against a backdrop of continuing violence, with both the notorious Armed Islamic Group and the Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat still pursuing their guerrilla campaigns, popular exasperation at local misgovernment repeatedly erupting in rioting across the country, and the Berber-speaking region of Kabylia east of Algiers in a state of permanent uproar since April of 2001, the elections mobilized the lowest turnout in the history of independent Algeria, with official figures recording a mere 46.09 percent of the electorate as bothering to vote, compared with 65.49 percent in 1997.

Worst affected were the Kabyle administrative regions of Tizi Ouzou and Bejaia. There, the two Kabyle-based parties, Sa’d Sadi’s Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) and Hocine A’t Ahmed’s Socialist Forces Front (FFS), boycotted the elections in deference to militant local opinion, and the highly organized protest movement succeeded in preventing nearly all polling stations from functioning, despite the presence of most other parties in the lists. The result was a turnout of 1.82 percent at Tizi Ouzou and 2.61 percent at Bejaia. But in many other parts of the country turnout was also unprecedentedly low: 28.54 percent at Bechar (compared to 80.46 percent in 1997), 29.19 percent at Tamanrasset (64.75 percent in 1997), 39.49 percent at Jijel (64.16 percent), 41.38 percent at Constantine (64.96 percent). Even El Tarf, in the extreme northeast of Algeria, which maintained its tradition of topping the turnout figures with 68.81 percent, was well down from the 81.01 percent it recorded five years ago.

The official turnout figure of just over 46 percent raises several questions. Opposition claims that the figure is massively inflated, and notably the suggestion by FFS spokesman Ali Djedda’ that the true turnout was between 15 and 20 percent at most, should be taken with a pinch of salt. These claims assume that the regime needed to inflate the figures for purposes of self-legitimation, and that people had no interest in voting because nothing of substance was at stake. But if the regime needed to inflate the figures, why did it not do this properly, by at least nudging them over the threshold of 50 percent? If nothing was at stake in the elections, how do we account for the results?

Winners and Losers

In terms of the respective scores in votes and seats of the main parties in contention, the outcome of the elections was very striking. Three parties can claim victories, and for three others the results have spelled defeat, if not disaster.

The main winner is the National Liberation Front (FLN), which has made a remarkable comeback not only from its humiliation by the Islamists in 1990 and 1991 but more particularly from its eclipse by the upstart Democratic National Rally (RND), which came in first in the 1997 elections. But the FLN is not the only winner. The Movement for National Reform (MRN), founded by Abdallah Djaballah in 1999 after he lost control of the Nahda Movement (MN), has also done very well, coming from nowhere to leapfrog over Mahfoud Nahnah’s Movement of Society for Peace (MSP) and emerge as the leading “constitutional” Islamist party. At the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, the Trotskyist Workers’ Party led by Louisa Hanoune has also obtained a spectacular success. Far from reproducing the status quo, the outcome was more a question of “all change.”

By comparison with 1997, the FLN has almost doubled its popular vote and share of the electorate, more than doubled its share of valid votes cast and tripled its tally of seats. The RND has lost nearly 70 percent of its seats and over 82 percent of its vote. Its share of valid votes cast is a quarter of its 1997 share and it has lost 83 percent of its former share of the electorate. The MSP is also a shadow of its former self, its vote down by 63 percent, its share of the electorate down by 66 percent and its tally of seats nearly halved. As for the MN, which, having won 34 seats under Djaballah’s leadership in 1997, was then taken over by Lahbib Adami at Djaballah’s expense, it has been destroyed, losing over two thirds of its vote and all but one of its seats, including Adami’s seat at Khenchela. Meanwhile, the Trotskyist party saw its vote rise by 83 percent, its share of the electorate and of valid votes rise by 71 percent and 159 percent respectively, while winning over five times as many seats as before.

Reversals of Fortune

These dramatic reversals of fortune cannot be explained by movements in public opinion, although they partly reflect these. There is no doubt that the RND was extremely unpopular. Created by the regime in early 1997 on the dual premise that the executive needed to control the National Assembly and that the FLN, still tarnished by past associations, would not do, it was never much more than the state bureaucracy in disguise, and vigorous rigging was required to give the RND the lion’s share of the seats. While its technocratic leaders, notably Ahmed Ouyahia, were effective in implementing the structural adjustment program at the national level, this only earned the RND more unpopularity. They proved disastrously incompetent in local government, as the plethora of local riots across the country over the last year has vividly demonstrated.

The FLN, by contrast, has had several things going for it. For a start its leadership role in the Algerian revolution still lends it some historical legitimacy. In much of the country, horror at what Algeria has been reduced to is widely expressed in nostalgia for the better aspects of the old one-party state—the fact that the country was united, at peace and reasonably prosperous—and this has worked to the party’s advantage. So the FLN’s victory undoubtedly corresponds in some degree to a genuine recovery of popular support. But this groundswell of opinion cannot explain the scale of the party’s success, and notably the fact that it has secured an overall majority (unlike the RND in 1997) on the basis of only 35.52 percent of the vote and 14.65 percent of the electorate. Undoubtedly, these numbers reflect a decision from on high.

The same reasoning applies to the Islamists. Both Nahnah’s MSP and Adami’s MN had lost a lot of public credit. The way Adami and his associates evicted the MN’s founder and leader, Abdallah Djaballah, in 1998 in order to take the party into the coalition government left a bad impression, and the blatant lack of seriousness of Nahnah’s rhetoric has been a kind of running gag for years. On top of this, neither party has had anything significant to show for participation in government, in which they have been bought off with minor portfolios, and they have ended up as neither fish nor fowl, impossible to take seriously either as government or as opposition. In contrast, Djaballah’s principled refusal to agree to cooptation as the MN’s leader four years ago and his stubborn, almost heroic, insistence on starting all over again by founding a new party rather than compromise himself, has earned him real credit in the considerable element of opinion disposed to listen to Islamist themes. The MRN’s success reflects this. But these considerations cannot really explain the scale of the electoral changes, the fact that the MRN not only did well but did better than the MSP, and especially the extraordinary rout of Adami’s MN. Here too we may suspect that decisions from on high have played a large part, as they almost certainly also had a hand in the astonishing success of the Workers’ Party.

If we try to distinguish the wood from the trees, the facts which stand out are that the results give the FLN an overall majority, put Djaballah’s MRN at the head of the Islamist parties in the new assembly and make Hanoune’s Workers’ Party the leading party of the “secular-democratic” wing of the ideological spectrum. Beyond their policy and ideological differences, these three parties have two crucial things in common. The first is their nationalism, which has not only been the FLN’s principal stock in trade, but has also characterized (and qualified) Djaballah’s brand of Islamism. Hanoune has been a vocal opponent of international “humanitarian” intervention in Algeria’s crisis, a fact the regime has undoubtedly appreciated. Second, all three parties were involved in the January 1995 talks hosted by the Catholic Sant’ Egidio community in Rome which produced the “Platform for a Peaceful Solution to Algeria’s Crisis,” since which time the death toll has more than doubled to well over 100,000.

Coopting Sant’ Egidio

Ever since he became president in April 1999, Abdelaziz Bouteflika has made clear his ambition to be the man who “puts the fire out” and restores peace to Algeria. In other words, he has sought to take over and make his own the visions of a “negotiated solution” and “national reconciliation” at the heart of the Rome Platform, and has been inclined to brook no rivals in this endeavour, since stealing the opposition’s clothes has been the name of the game. Like his predecessor, Liamine Zeroual, Bouteflika has pursued his vision in fits and starts, in large part because of endless factional conflict within the power structure, especially within the army leadership. But another major impediment to Bouteflika on this as well as other policy fronts has been the very awkward National Assembly he inherited from Zeroual, in which he had little real as opposed to merely formal support. He has undoubtedly sought to engineer a new Assembly to his liking and may have largely succeeded.

By this reading, the regime has finally succeeded in coopting all serious elements of the Rome alliance except the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), whose armed wing gave up the struggle several years ago, and Hocine A’t Ahmed’s FFS. By gaining 21 seats, the Workers’ Party went one better than the FFS in 1997. By having to boycott the elections in deference to Kabyle opinion, the FFS, like its Kabyle rival the RCD, has effectively demonstrated its essentially regional character. Its pretensions to national leadership may have been irredeemably undermined. Thus, however damaging the Kabyle boycott was for Algeria’s external image, it may well have worked for the regime rather than against it, at any rate in the short term. Whether Bouteflika can capitalize on the increased freedom of action he now enjoys to secure a genuine end to the political violence is another matter. The point is that he has drawn the opposition’s teeth on this issue.

As for the global turnout figure, a similar analysis may be in order. It may well be that the regime saw a point in admitting an unimpressive figure, which has the merit of appearing fairly plausible to most observers while also failing to legitimate fully the success of those parties which performed well. An essential part of the regime’s strategy of keeping Algeria’s parties where it wants them—on the end of a leash—has been to ensure that they never acquire more legitimacy than is necessary from the regime’s point of view. This is why fewer Algerians than ever have been inclined to vote for them.

Postcript: A Sting in the Tail

On June 3 the Constitutional Council formally validated the results of the election, as is normal, but in doing so modified them in certain respects. In terms of seats the only change was that the RND lost a seat to an independent candidate. The total number of electors was revised downwards by 29,915 and the turnout rose very slightly to 46.17 percent. The real changes have gone unremarked, however, since the new figures have massively revised the numbers of votes officially won by the parties which obtained seats. In the case of the FLN and the RND the changes are slight (down 14,702 and 19,780 respectively), but the MRN has lost 41,565 votes, the MSP 50,337 votes, independent lists 423,898 votes, the MN 217,363 (82 percent of its earlier total), the FNA 120,830, the PRA 142,495 and the MEN 125,454. These changes are curious to say the least since it is a mystery where all these votes have gone, given that overall turnout has gone up and not down. We may not have heard the last of Algeria’s parliamentary elections.

How to cite this article:

Hugh Roberts "Musical Chairs in Algeria," Middle East Report Online, June 04, 2002.

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