Algerians sound off on election boycott

Politicians and activists share views on whether Algeria’s legislative elections will actually bring change.

Opposition activists are divided on whether voting or boycotting is best way to achieve change [Photo courtesy of FFS]

Algeria’s legislative elections are scheduled for Thursday, but experts have predicted that the majority of Algerian voters will boycott the polls.

The Algerian regime has so far resisted the dramatic upheaval in neigbouring countries including Tunisia, Libya and, most recently, Mali. The elections, portrayed by the authorities as a sign of their willingness to allow gradual political overture, are a bid to retain control.

The implications of a massive boycott have caused signs of panic from authorities. In a speech on Tuesday, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the Algerian president, appealed to citizens to go to the polls.

Legislative elections in 2007 produced the lowest turnout in Algeria’s history, with only 35 per cent of the 18.7 million eligible voters casting ballots.

The stakes for the ruling elite are even higher this year. The population is increasingly cynical of political rule by forces they refer to as le pouvoir, or “the power”, a term for the generals who allegedly hold the real power behind the façade of official government.

The ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) has argued that a turnout of 45 per cent would give the elections legitimacy. Opposition activists, however, have said the real turnout could be as low as 10 per cent.

Al Jazeera spoke with Algerian opposition politicians about their hopes of change for Algeria, and whether boycotting or supporting the vote is the best means of achieving it.

Hayet Taiati Meziani: Supports voting
Hayet Taiati Meziani, right, a candidate on the FFS’s list for Algiers, the capital [Photo courtesy of the FFS]

Hayet Taiati Meziani is a Socialist Forces Front (FFS) candidate for the party’s list in Algiers. A secular left-leaning party, the FFS is the oldest opposition movement in the country. It was founded by Hocine Ait-Ahmed, one of the architects of the Algerian War of Independence, when he went into opposition against the FLN in 1963.

“Of course, it is important to participate in this election campaign. With everything that is going on in the Arab world, our participation is important to warn the public of the dangers around us and to fight peacefully against violence in our society.

People are tired of violence. We lived through 15 years of violence and now people just want to live in peace.

The public is divided between those who want to vote, and those who want to abstain. It is unlikely the rate of participation will be high.

Since the president’s speech yesterday, however, yes, it is possible the number of people who vote will increase [compared to the number that might otherwise have boycotted].

Of course, there are many people, especially the young, who don’t have jobs or housing. Most of them believe these elections won’t bring any change, and so they won’t vote.

That is why the president gave his speech yesterday, because otherwise he knows that there will be very low participation tomorrow.

It is little by little that things will change, it won’t happen overnight. That is why we are participating, to bring change in the future. It has to start somewhere.

We are well-respected amongst the population for our history, for our struggle that has lasted for years, for our honour, so I hope people will vote for us.”

Mohamed Zitout: Supports boycott
Mohamed Zitout, Algerian activist-in-exile and co-founder of the Rachad movement [Photo courtesy of Zitout]

Mohamed Zitout is an Algerian activist-in-exile and former diplomat now living in the United Kingdom. He is a co-founder of the Rachad movement, an organisation dedicated to achieving “radical and responsible change” in Algeria through non-violent means. 

“The regime is really panicking at the moment. They are threatening the people that there will be foreign intervention in their country, like what happened in Libya; accusing those who don’t vote of being ‘sick’, and threatening that they will go to hellfire.

[The minister of religious affairs said on Saturday that failing to vote would be haram, or forbidden, under Islam. 

“Those who are calling for boycotts are cowards, hypocrites with whom we can’t construct a society or establish a partnership,” Gholamllah is reported to have said.]

They are right to be afraid. This election is threating to be a nightmare for them.

For the first time in the history of Algeria, we have had young people destroying banners, writing on walls, distributing tracts. And this is coming, not from political forces, but from just young people, and we are having very strong comments on Facebook and YouTube, people are joking about what some candidates are saying.

The regime is feeling that they have put themselves in a very bad situation, because their friends, namely the Americans, the British and the French, are telling them that they can’t afford to protect them and to help them all the time.

Officially, foreign leaders are still supporting Algeria. But, in private, they are telling them that they can’t support them all the time.

Abstention is going to be extremely high. I would put it at 80 to 90 per cent. In this case, will the regime accept these results?

They need the turnout to be around 40 to 50 per cent, but that is wishful thinking.

If they inflate the results, this might be the start of huge problems.

These elections will be, in my view, something similar to what happened in Egypt. This will be the start of the end of the regime.”

Kamel Mida: Supports voting
Kamel Mida, centre, press officer for the MSP, during the campaign [Photo courtesy of the MSP]

Kamel Mida is press officer for the Movement for the Society of Peace (MSP), a party running as part of the Green Alliance. It was in coalition with the ruling FLN until the build-up to the legislation election. The MSP is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

“We have been welcomed by Algerian citizens. We have been really active on the ground and have been going door-to-door, to convince them to vote for our lists. People have come to our meetings, gotten involved, and are enthusiastic about voting for our alliance.

I think there will be a higher turnout than usual [this year]. In our meetings, people seem very aware of the importance of voting, they want to vote.

We are expecting very good results, to come first, and that after these elections, we will become the strongest party [in Algeria].

The FLN has been in power in 50 years, and we are the party that represents change. Many people agree with our policies and share our convictions. We want to follow the Turkish model.

They have made a choice. They say that a low voter turnout will mean that the Algerian system is in crisis and that the Algerian people want radical change, like what has happened in Egypt or Syria.

But we think we can achieve peaceful change, change via the ballot box. Change that can take Algeria into the future, an Algeria that is modern and prosperous.

We want to change the government, to win the majority in the parliament, to work with the president of the republic until 2014.”

Hacene Ferhati: Supports boycott
Hacene Ferhati became an activist when his brother was forcibly disappeared [Photo courtesy of Ferhati]

Hacene Ferhati is a member of SOS Disparus, an association that fights for truth and justice in the cases of more than 8,000 Algerians who were forcibly disappeared by state security forces during the civil war of the 1990s. Ferhati became an activist after his brother disappeared in 1998.

“I won’t be voting, but I respect the right of those who do choose to vote.

I have decided not to vote because le pouvoir [the Algerian regime] has been lying to us for 50 years. There is extensive vote-rigging every time, and why would this time be any different?

For us, they are liars who have never done anything for the people, why would they start now?

In Algeria, we don’t have the right to protest or denounce anything. The Algerian state categorically refuses people the right to peaceful expression. Why should I go vote when they don’t even let the people calling for boycott express themselves?

[Reference to the arrests of activists calling for a boycott, including one on May 1 in Algiers.] 

There is no democracy in Algeria. It is a pure and simple dictatorship. This year, the authorities are afraid of the risk of massive abstention.

Out of all my family and friends, there are only two out of about 100 who say they are going to vote.

Now, all Algerians know the truth. People know they should boycott the election and not give any legitimacy to le pouvoir. Algeria is a very rich country but people are living in poverty.

They need to change the system in this country, and let people work in their own country. All the people in power are old, there are no young people, no graduates.

What happens after the election is a question mark.”

You can follow Yasmine Ryan on Twitter: @yasmineryan

Source: Al Jazeera

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